We’re used to the History Channel running pseudo-historical and non-historical shows. And the only thing it seems you can discover on the Discovery channel nowadays are fantasies and fiction.
Et tu, Animal Planet?
This past weekend, the cable channel built around accurate, if sometimes overly cloying or dramatic images and narratives about animals, took the plunge into pretend truth. It ran what it called a speculative documentary about the possibility that mermaids and mermen once existed, and in fact were hominid-tending apes that returned to the sea during a period of massive coastal flooding.
Mermaids: The Body Found unfolds as the typical documentary that most people associate with facts and factual presentations. Think of Ken Burns, Fog of War and The Sorrow and the Pity. For that matter, think of almost all of Animal Planet’s programming. The film has all the techniques of the documentary. Excerpts from newscasts. Shaking video from amateurs. Expert interviews. Except it’s all fake: fake anchors, fake amateurs, fake experts.
As Ed Stockly of the Los Angeles Times pointed out, most fake documentaries are satires which use a variety of devices to wink “just fooling” to the audience. Stockly mentions several examples like Zelig and Spinal Tap, to which I want to add Luis Buñuel’s 1933 masterpiece of satire, Las Hurdes (Land Without Bread.). FYI, some of the most often employed “winking” techniques include exaggeration, patently absurd statements, music with comic tones, or putting words into the mouths of obvious fools.
But Mermaids: The Body Found never winks. In interviews the filmmaker, Charlie Foley, has preferred to play it coy, with statements about “some interesting questions on whether mermaids might be plausible.”
I would like to be gentle with both Animal Planet and the film itself. After all, speculation about mermaids, unicorns and other fictional beasts is harmless fun. In theory, a fiction that unrolls like a documentary has no moral flaw in it, that is, as long as everyone knows it’s a fiction, a piece of speculation with no basis in reality.
That’s in theory. In the real world, the film minimizes the disclaimer almost out of existence. Moreover, the very fact that the documentary appears on Animal Planet gives it the air of truth. Run the same show on the comedy channel between reruns of Harold & Kumar and Cheech & Chong and you could get a lot of laughs. Run it on Animal Planet and you are putting a lot of nonsense into the heads of a lot of viewers, many of whom are under age.
For the most part, the news media has accepted the documentary not as describing truth, but as describing a possibility for which evidence may exist; for example, see “Mermaids are real! At least that's what Mermaids:The Body Found wants us to think,” “’Mermaids:The Body Found’ Explores The Possibility Of Real Life Mermaids” and “’Mermaids: The Body Found’ stirs speculation that the sea creatures are real”
In this readiness to open a debate on the past existence of mermaids we find the most negative impact of Animal Planet running this fiction. We are living in an age in which lies parade as truth. How many pseudo-scientific documentaries and books are out there purporting to prove that the world is not getting warmer or that intelligent design ignited the universe and guides it through its evolution? How many politicians claim that raising taxes slows economic growth or that Social Security is in dire straits, even as study after study demonstrates otherwise? Sending forth yet another fiction parading as truth makes it all the harder for people to learn how to ascertain truth.
With as many as 8.7 million species of animals on Earth, you would think that Animal Planet would have enough topics for many decades to come and wouldn’t have to resort to anti-scientific, anti-rational bunkum.