In the US: Thursdays, Freeform
In the UK: Thursdays, 9pm, Syfy. Starts May 3
See that logo? That’s the logo of a moderately well-known, Seattle-based company called Starbucks. It’s also a siren. Apparently.
This is somewhat bewildering to me. The sirens in The Odyssey are scary creatures and the Greeks believed they were the companions of Persephone, the queen of the underworld. If you heard them sing, you’d be drawn towards them and probably end up dead at their feet without their caring one jot. But their sweet song in Hades might at least make your death seem more bearable.
As the marvellous Emily Wilson also recently pointed out, the sirens of The Odyssey aren’t described at all and aren’t actually sexy in the slightest; however, Greek vase art and funerary stelae show them to be half-women, half-birds. Starbucks’ idea of pretty topless mermaids singing sexy songs to lure sailors into their arms? Nope. That seems to be an invention of 19th century American sailors who’d been at sea away from women for too long.
So I’m somewhat pleased that while Freeform’s new show Siren certainly gives us a mermaid-like creature from the waters in the pacific northwest who can sing an entrancing song, the show is a far more complicated affair than a simple young adult version of The Little Mermaid.
Handsome and the fish
Certainly, the plot synopsis would have you thinking of Siren as little more than a gender-swapped version of The CW’s Beauty and the Beast, which is probably what it would have been on that network. It sees Eline Powell (The Fear) playing a mermaid/siren who comes onto land to look for her sister mermaid (Sibongile Mlambo), who’s accidentally caught by a group of fishermen and is then in turn captured by the US military to be experimented upon. However, she soon comes across marine biologist Alex Roe (The Cut) who wants to both help and study her… and possibly something more, too.
Slightly problematically, though, he lives in “the mermaid capital of the world” – a town with a rich mermaid folklore, rather than a lot of mermaids – and one of his ancestors is famous for having fallen in love with a mermaid. Although he might in reality actually having killed a lot of them instead. Oops.
He’s also got a girlfriend already (Fola Evans-Akingbola). Oops.
However, while Freeform is as pitched at the young adult market as The CW is, it’s far more interested in the sort of young adults who like The Maze Runner rather than A Wrinkle in Time. Siren is actually best thought of as a horror TV show, rather than Splash 3.
The mermaids here are predators and Powell’s siren is super-strong and super-vicious, slicing and murdering her way around town as she looks for her missing sister. She’s also not one of those Daryl Hannah, pretty mermaids – thanks to some cunning make-up and contact lenses, she looks genuinely odd, and Powell makes her seem deeply uncomfortable with her surroundings. And when she’s a full-on mermaid, it’s clear that she’s more likely to have you for lunch than sing to you.
There’s also no instant learning of English and while Powell is starting to understand some of what people are saying to her by the third episode, it’s a very strangely accented English, delivered oddly. You do get a real sense of the alien from her. If Roe and Powell do end up in a relationship together, it’ll be as odd as if he’d started dating a velociraptor.
Brits at sea
All of which makes Siren a far more interesting take on things than that synopsis would have suggested. The trouble is the casting. While Powell’s fabulous, she’s the only Brit in the cast who is. And there are a lot of Brits – Roe and Evans-Akingbola are both Brits and they both have the usual problem of spending so long getting their accents right that they forget to give their characters any personality. Indeed, Roe is spectacularly dull.
Slightly more oddly, we also have the wonderful, award-winning New Zealand actress Rena Owen (Once Were Warriors, East West 101) playing the mysterious owner of a mermaid memorabilia shop who clearly knows far more about mermaids than what you’d learn from fairy tales. Owen doesn’t even try for a second to be American, so you do wonder why she’s even in this remote US town. She’s also given little to do except be mysterious and warn people about mermaids… before heading off to buy Powell fruits de mer by the sackful.
None of which makes you want to stick with the story. It’s interesting and has some good ideas, but the ideas are struggling against the casting, rather than being helped by it. You do wonder if Powell’s mermaid will wipe out the town on her quest, but will you care about any of the dead if she does?
Siren‘s a lot better, more interesting a show than it has any right to be, thanks to its embrace of horror rather than young romance. However, beyond Eline Powell’s central performance, it has little to really mesmerise the audience and keep them watching. I enjoyed what I watched but I think I’ll be turning back to port now.
Barrometer rating: 3