With the recent success of “Blue Planet II,” AMC’s maritime drama “The Terror,” and the Oscar-winning “The Shape of Water” on the big screen, it’s clear that the idea of what lurks in the unknowable deep still sparks excitement and a little trepidation in us puny humans. Enter Freeform’s “Siren,” which confirms that being afraid, being very afraid might be the smart option.
That’s because the series sails past the rosy Disney interpretation of what a mermaid is and instead hews closer to the homicidal creatures known as sirens in Greek and Roman mythology. These lethal ladies lured sailors to their doom upon the rocks with the strength of their song, and in some cases, killed the men with their bare hands.
In Freeform’s series, the mysterious mermaid Ryn (Eline Powell) sprouts legs and begins to wreak havoc in the small fishing town of Bristol Cove, which is famous for its legend of once being the home to mermaids. Ben (Alex Roe) and Maddie (Fola Evans-Akingbola) are marine biologists who can’t help be drawn to this person who looks so much like themselves, yet may have more in common with the creatures they study.
“Siren” bears a passing resemblance to Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water,” in that a befinned humanoid interacts with dry-skinned land-walkers, some of whom are friendly, but some of whom just want to exploit or harm. It’s too early to tell from the first three episodes provided for review if hearts may be involved, but the government certainly is. Also, as with del Toro’s dreamy film, any tail tale featuring a mythical being requires some suspension of disbelief.
That said, “Siren” asks for an entire Golden Gate-sized suspension bridge of disbelief, but it’s not for the fantastical elements. Instead, viewers must accept just how dumb every single plot point is and every single action taken is. Don’t worry about why anyone does anything or why accents randomly leak out in this Washington town; just go with the water flow. Embrace the sloppy.
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Anchoring the series is Powell’s portrayal of Ryn, who lays siege to the role like a hungry mermaid who’s caught herself a crab (sorry, Sebastian). Armed with killer cheekbones and super-human strength, Ryn is a dangerous, otherworldly presence in the coastal town. She’s a misunderstood predator who will only harm you if you’re food or if she’s under attack conditions. Unfortunately, such conditions appear to occur quite often on land, among people who don’t understand that siren life. Ryn can and does kill people, but even if it’s in self-defense, it’s still unsettling because of the utter brutality of her actions. This aquatic avenging angel ain’t no Ariel.
Powell’s ability to embody a being who is mainly a physical presence, yet fill it with wonder, fear, and menace without uttering a word, is magnetic. Even when she begins to speak broken English, that can’t diminish the intensity of her performance. The series gives this monster a purpose, illustrated by a blatant reference to a Disney franchise that’s not “The Little Mermaid” but one that contains a theme that’s essential to Ryn’s quest on land. Not quite human and yet not quite animal, Ryn has a conscience yet is feral, which poses a challenge for how people should treat her.
Sadly, such complexities are not to be found in the show’s human characters, who ought to benefit from full sentences of dialogue, and yet somehow still lack personality and dimension. Casting beautiful and racially diverse people isn’t enough when they’re really just there to react to situations and move the action along. The one exception so far is Helen Harris (Rena Owen), who is blessed with a personality, yet is cursed with the cliched role of the town kook, a lady who speaks cryptically and with ominous portent.
And where, for the love of cod, is the humor? While Ryn’s character must be played straight, there needs to be some acknowledgment — either through irony or a wisecracking supporting character — that this story is utterly preposterous. A few laughs would go a long way to actually selling the rest of the show, providing decompression so that the viewers don’t suffer from the narrative equivalent of the Bends.
Despite the ridiculous storytelling and two-dimensional characterizations that are flatter than a flounder, what really sinks “Siren” is that tonally, it’s neither fish nor fowl. It has no self-awareness of what it wants to be, but there are glimmers of what it could be: a horror series that plays upon people’s paranoia of deep water, a maritime action series, a morality tale about what it means to be humane, a tragic and/or sexy interspecies love story, or a soap with heightened emotions that carry it into the realm of juicy Douglas Sirk-ian melodrama.
Perhaps like the amphibious fish that grew legs, the series could evolve into a fully realized something… anything. But as it stands, it’s best to resist Freeform’s “Siren” song or you might find that you’ll just want to throw it back.
Grade: Sea-Plus (C+)
”Siren” premieres with a two-hour special on Thursday, March 29 at 8 p.m. ET on Freeform.