Set in the fictional tourist-trap town of Bristol Cove, Washington (motto: “The mermaid capital of the world!”), Siren follows the exploits of a headstrong young man (Alex Roe), his marine-life researcher girlfriend (Fola Evans-Akingbola), and his fisherman friends as they attempt to find their friend taken by the military—and discovering that mermaids are at the heart of the mystery. Of course, these mermaids aren’t like The Little Mermaid’s Ariel: They’re spiky, brutal killers in the water, and strange oddballs who don’t speak English when they change into human form. There’s a government cover-up, a local mermaid truther, and a secret history of mermaid massacres by humankind. To say this show is weird undersells it.
Then again, it would be difficult to fully prepare you for just how bananas Freeform’s newest attempt to fuse horror, fantasy, and soapy dramatics really is. In an effort to help determine whether this is the kind of crazy that would appeal to you—or conversely, the kind of crazy that would make you cringe, turn off the TV, and possibly even go for a walk and think about your life choices—here is a listing of some of the most unusual, inexplicable, or downright-bananas aspects of the series.
- More often than not, Siren is filmed like a slasher movie. From the opening minutes, in which fishermen in the Bering Strait pull in a nighttime haul of fish from their nets, only to discover something else was caught in their trap (one guess what it is), the camera pulls all the classic horror-movie maneuvers. The unknown creature violently attacks one of the men; it continually wriggles out of our field of vision, preventing a good look at it; there are jump scares you can see coming a fathom away. As it moves onto dry land, the horror tropes continue, from the brutal violence that will suddenly erupt into the frame to the “killer’s P.O.V.” shots employed to menace characters at various times. There’s also the old “We see someone watching our hero, but when they turn around, the person is gone” trick.
- There’s a massive military conspiracy to capture the mermaids. It’s not enough to have mermaids turn out to be real; the government has to know all about it. Hence, a tactical unit in a chopper descends on the fishermen’s boat shortly after they catch their strange prey. They airlift their prize out of there, along with the injured crewman—and rather than dropping him at a hospital, they disappear him to a secret facility, in a well-thought-out strategy to keep his friends and family from asking questions. It turns out the military has plans for these creatures that involve malevolent scientific testing. Does a Shape Of Water-style bonding happen with one of the scientists? Maybe.
- The main character rebels against his family by being a good person. Ben Pownhall is the son of the mayor in Bristol Cove, and his spiteful and unpleasant family lead him to avoid them, incurring their wrath through such behavior as going to rescue endangered sea lions (per his job at the Marine Research Center) instead of attending rote public ceremonies commemorating metal statues of his ancestors. The nerve! His wheelchair-bound mom chews him out good for that temerity, telling him the family has to put up a good public face so that her husband can keep her in $600 shoes. Yes, really.
- The mermaids can’t speak English, but they are surprisingly quick learners. When Ben discovers a naked young woman who collapses in the road, it turns out she’s a mermaid, albeit one who has transformed into a person with legs. She can’t talk, but she opens her mouth and emits a gentle ululating melody that apparently drives those who hear it absolutely wild with a desire to protect mermaids. She runs off before Ben can get the town doctor to check her out, but by the next day she’s giving herself a name (Ryn) and learning to speak.
- The doctor insists on a house call to check out this mystery woman. When Ben calls and offers to drive Ryn to the hospital—not a bad plan, since she could have severe internal bleeding, for all they know—the doctor poo-poos such worries over the phone. “It’s okay, Ben, I’ll meet you at your place.” Sure, okay.
- We watch Ryn kill and eat a rat. No indication whether it tastes better or worse than the fish slurry Ryn later steals from the Marine Research Center.
- The sea lions at the Research Center growl at Ryn whenever she appears. Ben encounters Ryn again the following day at his workplace, where she joins a group of schoolchildren there on a field trip. They’re being shown around by Maddie Bishop, Ben’s co-worker and girlfriend. After showing off the adorable sea creatures, the kids have to be shuttled off when the sea lions turn nasty and start howling. In case it wasn’t clear from the way they stare right at Ryn while they do it, a little girl helpfully yells out, “It was her! She did it!” while pointing at our mermaid.
- Ben eventually launches a mission to protect Ryn. While his fishermen buddies try to figure out what the military stole from them and if there’s more of the creatures out there, Ben decides his job is to protect Ryn, figure out why she’s suddenly appeared, and discover as much about mermaids as he can. Chalk it up to that melodious song—it must be a total earworm for Ben to get him to hand his life over completely to a mermaid with a penchant for brutal violence.
- The mermaid transformations are genuinely gross. When we inevitably see Ryn change into her true form, which happens well before the end of the premiere, it’s staged as a graphic underwater rending of flesh, as Ryn screams, sharp fins rip through her back, and the bloody skin on her legs fuses together. It’s a gruesome body-horror shift straight out of a David Cronenberg film. Plus, we’re assured that the change is tremendously painful, in case you weren’t already upset.
- There’s a local town mermaid expert. Naturally, there’s a wise old woman (Rena Owen) around to help Ben understand his new mermaid charge. Everyone else thinks her tales of mermaid history are nonsense, but luckily for Ben, she has a book to help him learn the truth: a hardbound edition of that old classic, An Illustrated History Of The Mermaid.
- Oh, and Ben’s ancestors may have committed mermaid genocide. Yes, the helpful mermaid expert tells Ben he should feel very guilty about his family legacy. This is where things really get nuts.
- The first episode already has a guy sexually assault a mermaid. It’s even more uncomfortable to watch than that was to type, and it was pretty uncomfortable to type.
- There’s a local townie who hates Ben for no good reason. One of the fishermen loathes Ben, seemingly because he had the rude manners to get a different job than fisherman. “He’s not one of us, man!” this guy is often hollering. He hates him so much that even when other people act too reasonable, he lambasts them for behaving like his even-keeled nemesis. When his roommate tells him to calm down, he yells, “You sound like Ben!” This man has somehow not been committed to a psychiatric facility.
- Ryn is barely 5 feet tall and looks like a strong wind could knock her over, but she apparently weighs 196 pounds. “Bone density,” it’s helpfully suggested.
The list goes on, but at a certain point, it becomes part of the furniture of this very strange but fitfully entertaining series. For god’s sake, Ryn randomly picks up an old “mermaid-killing” knife at one point, because things like that are liberally strewn around this story. Every plot twist or narrative wrinkle (The military sets a mermaid trap! Ryn slips away to go to a kegger and slug beer!) is intriguing mostly because it’s another opportunity for Siren to do something outrageous. By the time the strange mermaid protagonist walks by a swimming pool, the viewer knows better than to just assume she’ll fall in and change. That would be far too logical, and in Bristol Cove, logic has been put out to sea.