There was a time when I could easily lure my three young children in from their summer-night street games with the bait of the Discovery Channel's "Shark Week."
We would all gather on the family room couch to watch the frighteningly close-up, spectacular shots of feeding frenzies — fins and teeth chopping the water into a Bass-o-matic froth filmed by a brave diver in an underwater cage. A narrator — with all the inflection and dynamism of Dick Cheney — would relate key facts about the class Chondrichthyes as well as salient environmental and habitat issues.
Divers in protective gear below and researchers on the surface always employed an approach that was both cautious and responsible, monitoring the sharks and each other with a respectful diligence that seemed so lofty, so awe-inspiring. In fact, each program would inevitably make me wonder if perhaps I should have ventured beyond the scientific shallows of the required Introduction to Earth Science class I took in college.
Yes, Shark Week programming — as I remembered it — exerted the same magnificent power on a new generation that "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau" had on mine: the power to keep children entertained while they are learning. As well as the power to keep them out of the ocean for the last two weeks of the summer.
In short, Shark Week was the perfect blend of drama and science for the whole family.
A couple of weeks ago, swept up by a wave of Shark Week nostalgia, I announced to my family that we would all be tuning in to 2010's Shark Week programming after dinner. We dished out some ice cream, gathered on the couch and settled in for some scintillating science.
But something was fishy, starting with the episode's title, "Shark Bite Beach." The voiceover sounded ominous, featuring the sort of announcer you'd typically hear on trailers for horror or gory true- crime movies. And the program was essentially vignette after vignette of graphic underwater shark maulings, inappropriate for anyone younger than, say, 50. Several times I and my family members spontaneously shouted "Oh, no!" or "Gross!" and covered our eyes. Our bowls of ice cream melted, untouched. We felt a little seasick.
Worse, we found ourselves laughing inappropriately whenever the script attempted to address the scientific content of the program. For example, in one vignette, a researcher has his left calf muscle ripped from his leg by a bull shark. This occurred during an "experiment" in which the researcher, along with a television personality, stood in shark-infested waters and conducted a lengthy interview on film. In a particularly graphic scene, we see the scientist being carried out of the bloody water by film crew members, his shredded leg dangling limply. In the next scene, the narrator says something like, "Of course, once he had healed, the researcher returned to the same cove to repeat the experiment."
What experiment? I guess it must have been the experiment that proves that the human brain's common-sense center is located entirely in the left calf muscle.
Obviously, I didn't tune in to any other episodes. But I know I'm in the minority here — because Shark Week is a huge hit among most Americans who like seeing disturbing and dangerous predators gone wild, as evidenced by the ratings for the new show "Real Housewives of D.C."
In fact, upon reflection, Shark Week is now just a nature-theme reality show — exactly like "Jersey Shore," only featuring a significantly more dignified and intelligent cast.
I guess the Discovery Channel figures if it's going to swim with the big fish, it has to embrace the bottom-feeders. And that really bites.