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matt zoller seitz

Seitz on Discovery’s Shark Week: Shameless and Irresistible

Has there ever been a more effective merger of science and sensationalism than Shark Week?

I doubt it. Discovery's annual celebration of all things toothy and finned kicks off again this Sunday, August 12, with a mix of new and repackaged material, all gathered under a programming label that's irresistible no matter how many holes you poke in it. I've written elsewhere that Shark Week disingenuously tries to have it both ways, bringing in experts to assure us that sharks are just big animals who tend to bite people by accident and rarely, even as the producers amp up the fear factor with re-created attacks, flash cuts of bloody water, and galumphing thriller music that wouldn't be out of place in a Michael Bay action flick.

But, duh, you know this and I know all this, and in the end, it doesn't dent the programming's appeal. Just as part of the enticement of auto racing involves the possibility of a deadly crash, Shark Week is alluring mainly because it caters to a primordial fear of being adrift in water as toothy beasts close in. Sharks have been around longer than dinosaurs or humans and remain primally terrifying no matter how rationally their animal instincts are explained, and Shark Week caters to both fascinations. You learn plenty about the physiology and mental processes of sharks, the effect of development on their feeding grounds, and the species's increasingly uneasy co-existence with humankind, but none of that eclipses the childish morbid tingle of anticipating the next maiming or death.

Discovery's blatantly schizoid attitude toward its annual cash cow (cash shark?) is often unintentionally hilarious. There's a moment in the documentary Shark Fight (Wednesday, Aug. 15, 9 p.m. Eastern) that sums it up. A surfer is telling a camera crew how he resisted an attacking tiger shark by punching it in the nose. The filmmakers cut between the surfer's testimony and shots of him reenacting the attack, flailing against a very convincing-looking rubber replica while horror-film music burbles on the soundtrack, while the narrator says (rather drily), "But there's no getting away. Half of Mike … is inside the shark."

Other new shows of note include Adrift: 47 Days With Sharks (Tuesday, Aug., 10 p.m.), about survivors of a World War II shipwreck trying to survive in a life raft in predator-infested waters; Great White Highway (Thursday, Aug. 16, 9 p.m.), about scientists who tag sharks with transmitters and analyze their migration and mating habits by satellite; and How Jaws Changed the World (Tuesday, Aug. 14, 9 p.m.), which might as well be titled Why This Week Exists.

Discovery's marathon has been going on for 25 years. I'm having a hard time imagining a scenario in which it won't still be running a quarter-century hence; even if the medium of television disappears, we'll probably still be downloading the same endlessly recycled programs into the little Matrix jacks at the bases of our skulls. As I sat in my office researching this piece, my 8-year old son passed through the room, caught a glimpse of poor Mike getting gnawed by a tiger shark, and asked what I was writing about. I said, "It's a whole week of nothing but shows about sharks." His jaw dropped, and he spent the next few seconds silently contemplating the magnitude of the unexpected gift he'd just been given. "That's the best thing ever," he said.

Photo: Scot Anderson