Watch on Hulu
(Season 2 currently airing on Freeform)
In the parallel universe of television, some things never change. Small towns that look boring on the outside are packed full of creepy secrets. Flo sells insurance. And the federal government does only two jobs: deliver the mail and carry out highly classified missions no one must know about.
Siren, a supernatural serial ensconced firmly in this hothouse world, feels a bit like Jaws and Buffy the Vampire Slayer mated. Still, I liked it, mostly because it takes a stab at one of the oldest legends in literature, involving the half-human half-aquatic creatures whose enchanting songs lure humans from their boats, often to their great misfortune.
For most of our lifetimes, these enchantresses have been stripped of their sensuality and presented to children as innocents from the sea. So it’s a bit satisfying to see Disney, which owns the Little Mermaid, willing to swim into darker waters by fronting a show that leans toward the more exotic and erotic tales of classical myth. (Siren airs on the Disney-owned Freeform channel, formerly known as ABC Family, with repeats streaming on Hulu.)
Siren is set in the always-spooky Pacific Northwest, in the charming little seaside village of Bristol Cove, where stories of mermaid sightings have been a part of local lore for generations. The children even put on a play in the city park to celebrate the town’s association with the mythical ladies.
It’s all in good fun, until a fishing boat finds a strange creature tangled in its nets one night. After it gets loose and attacks one of the fishermen, the captain radios for help. Faster than you can say meninblackhelicopters, the Feds find the boat and make off with all the evidence.
Meanwhile, strange things begin happening in the sleepy little town, and as news from the sea trickles in, Ben Pownall (Alex Roe) and Maddie Bishop (Fola Evans-Akingbola) — marine biologists and lovers — start connecting the dots.
Things get stranger with the arrival of Ryn (Eline Powell), a mermaid who’s come to dry land to find her sister (the one caught in the nets). Ryn says next to nothing in the first two episodes, but she sings a tune that immediately entrances Ben.
In Homer’s Odyssey the sirens are so irresistible and so deadly that Odysseus orders his crew to lash him to the ship’s mast and ignore all his pleas to untie him until they have passed the mermaids’ lair and their song can be heard no more. On Siren, the threat is different because the humans are different. Odysseus just wanted to get the hell home to Penelope, but Bristol Cove’s mermaid lore suggests that in the past, fishing nets weren’t required for these seductive creatures to become entangled with humans.
No one on either side seems especially happy to see the other species. And when one particularly awful human is violently dispatched, the fear and distrust only escalate. Still, there's clearly some... curiosity at work here. This becomes more apparent as Season 1 of Siren progresses and other merfolk, male and female, come ashore in search of Ryn and her sister.
Homer spun yarns about gods and mortals intersecting, because the Greeks needed such stories to make sense of the utterly inexplicable: the mysteries of life beyond human comprehension. Since this is a series aimed at teens, the discussion is much less metaphysical. Instead, the characters on Siren run the gamut from belief to disbelief at the curious incidents unfolding.
So you have the People of Science, Ben and Maddie, trying to make sense of Ryn (who in their thinking should not exist). They are in turn pitted against the believers led by Helen Hawkins (Rena Owen), a local gift shop owner extremely well versed in Bristol Cove lore. Perhaps predictably, this older woman of color serve as the show's spirit guide. When Ben refers to Ryn as belonging to a “different species,” Helen cuts him off:
“That’s the problem right there,” she says.“She’s a species to you. There’s way more to the world than science.”
Ben counters, “Those are made-up stories.”
“You’re just like your ancestors,” Helen says disapprovingly, “refusing to acknowledge your past, destined to repeat it.” After all, what is myth other than history that no one can verify?
Ben is not the only one whose ears tingle at Ryn’s seductive song. At times it seems that Maddie would follow her to Atlantis, too. (Some viewers swear the three are in a polyamorous relationship.) To Siren’s credit, nearly everyone in Season 1 has a different take on the commingling of the two … let’s call them life forms, including whether it’s a good thing, and how far it should go.
That includes Decker (Ron Yuan), the federal agent who has Ryn’s sister under lock and key. At one point, he pleads with Ben to come to the compound and get his siren to sing her song again. “If I don’t hear it again,” confesses Decker, “I’m going to lose my damn mind.” As Season 1 ends, lots of intrigues are set up for Season 2 (which is currently running and is 16 episodes long instead of 10).
As with Disney’s decision to cast Halle Bailey in the live-action Little Mermaid, there’s a nod toward diversity in Siren that’s anti-racist. The show is also anti-ableist (though the actor who plays Ben’s wheelchair-bound mother isn't disabled in real life), as well as pro-environment (the merfolk were enjoying their life apart from humans until the fishing boats came along and mucked it up).
Pressed for time? Watch the first three episodes of Season 1, then skip ahead to episodes nine and ten. The “Previously” segments should give you enough clues as to how the story advanced in the intervening five episodes.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star. Follow him on Twitter at @tvbarnagain.