“It’s not what you’re thinking.”
“How do you know what I’m thinking?”
“Because it literally can’t be anything that you’re thinking.” — Ben to Madden, in the second episode of Siren, and also me to everyone reading this.
I don’t know why Freeform’s new horror mermaid show, Siren, is such a constant surprise. Its eerie, grotesque, utterly unsexy promos have been, from the start, extremely up front about what kind of show it is. Its unsettling tone has been clear and consistent from the series’ harrowing opening scene on a storm-wrecked commercial fishing boat. The “siren,” the inhuman, nonverbal Ryn (Eline Powell), spent her first day on land eating live rodents whole, slurping puréed herring smoothie straight from a blender gripped in her dirty, algal fingertips, and gutting her would-be rapist in an act of pure, animal #MeToo vengeance. She’s gotten no more human since.
This show knows what it is, and has put in every effort to be, from the moment it premiered until now, exactly that.
And yet, I keep being surprised, every time I turn it on. By how bloody it is. By how consistently predatory and otherworldly Ryn—and later her sister, Donna (Sibongile Mlambo)—are. By how thoroughly disinterested it is in making Ryn or Donna objects of sexual attraction, even as Ryn is introduced to Ben completely naked; even as one of their key predatory skills is revealed to be a siren song that inspires obsessive, paralyzing fascination in the listener; even as Ryn literally inserts herself in between Ben and Madden in their shared bed, and the effect is as though a large, still-feral dog has jumped up to sleep with them. By how anti-romantic it is about the idea of being an aquatic predator who can temporarily and with excruciating pain shed her fins to, dessicating by the second, hobble around half-defenseless on land. By how zero main characters have a narrative arc predicated on romantic ‘shipping—Ben (Alex Roe) and Madden (Fola Evans-Akingbola) because they are already in a solid, communicative partnership with shared goals and interests; Xander (Ian Verdun) and Calvin (Curtis Lum) because they are singularly focused on chasing down and rescuing their Black Ops-abducted best friend. By how it brought up genocide in the very first episode, and hasn’t let the audience forget since.
Why? Why so much surprise, every single week?
It’s not actually a mystery, no matter how much my subconscious might argue. It’s Freeform. Or rather, the stigmatized reputation attached to Freeform (né ABC Family), its programming caught up in the fug of female- and youth-coded superficiality that not even a person (me) who has dedicated years to getting people to even just consider taking genre programming for teens and girls seriously—a person (me, still) who literally only started writing about television in the first place because Pretty Little Liars and its subversively searing indictment of toxic patriarchy existed on Freeform itself—that not even that person (me!) can break free of the knee-jerk assumptions that seem to follow every new Freeform show around like a bad shadow, no matter how critically appreciated (PLL, The Fosters) or virally beloved (The Bold Type, Shadowhunters) that show might be.
Put another way: I truly never once thought that Siren planned to be anything other than a murder-y cryptid show—I saw the posters! I watched the trailers! More importantly, I believed the Liars way back when, when they tried to tell America that the world of men is full of predators!—and even still, Siren’s straight-faced commitment to murder-y cryptids and its refusal to sex itself up in any purely titillating way… it surprised me.
It surprised me, because here is what Freeform does: It lulls you into thinking that its shows are about burning down the patriarchy, or celebrating strong (and queer) female friendship, or watching a beloved sitcom character make her way into the many and varied complexities of adulthood, and then its social media arm makes everything about A) ‘ships, B) viral fan engagement, or C) both. Pretty Little Liars scored the first real hookup between Aria (student) and Ezra (teacher/stalker) with a cover of Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” and the network’s social media team framed it as a retweetable OTP moment. Zoe barely got two episodes into college on grown-ish before her entire freshman year was taken over by crush drama. Switched at Birth took pains to give its characters a send-off without romance at its center, but Bay’s and Emmett’s relationship history still got a post: Not over the #Bemmett feels.
So even though this is Ryn’s second time stripping in just the first episode…
(N.B.: Extremely gruesome and unpleasant.)
…even though Ryn only sheds her clothes to break herself apart as she returns, violently, to mermaid form, in a scene possessed of not even a sliver of the male gaze—even then, my wary Freeform senses can’t rest.
And I’m not a crackpot, because even though that scene—which ends with Ben leaping in to save her and then barely escape from her with his life—is as harrowing, inhuman, and anti-romantic is possible, here is what happens when the sheriff (Gil Birmingham) shows up to start investigating Ryn’s bloody #MeToo murder scene: The Freeform social media machine pops up bright green and bold in the bottom corner of the screen, exhorting Tumblr users to Submit your fan art or photos showcasing mermaid culture siren.tumblr.com/submit!!!
First of all, yo, Freeform—that’s literally what the show itself just did. What better fan art of mermaid culture than brutal revenge on predatory human men with no DNA evidence trail to follow?
Beyond that, though, how extremely tone deaf! It’s no ‘shipping nonsense being wedged into a story that has no room for it, but the very fact that Freeform couldn’t be bothered to make sure its fannish social media grab didn’t undermine the very show they were, ostensibly, intending to promote, doesn’t inspire confidence. I don’t want to have #Bryn and #Maddyn and #MadBryn floating around in my brain, but nothing about Freeform’s past has made me believe I won’t need to be fluent enough in those tags to avoid them later on.
And this is the biggest shame, because Siren is, so far, very great. It is pointedly, effortlessly diverse—the only white core characters are Ben and Ryn, while Madden and her dad (the sheriff) have Haida (First Nations) ancestry, and local wise woman/possible mermaid Helen (Rena Own) is played by a Maori-Welsh New Zealander. Its narrative structure, divorced from any romantic through lines and with the big “where’s Ryn’s sister?” mystery wrapped in the fourth episode, is entirely unpredictable. It’s CGI effects, especially when the mermaids are racing around deep in the ocean, aren’t good—like, at all—but I just rewatched Wonder Woman and the CGI of her busting out of Veld’s high walls is hardly better, and anyway, the CGI is so besides the point. I mean, I’m not really sure what the point of the show is. The bonds of chosen family? The sanctity of the body, and the horror when it either can’t or won’t do what you want it to? The nature of violence and power? The infinite natural mysteries still hidden from us? The importance of careers in marine conservation? All of the above? But it’s definitely not about how believable the mermaids look darting around under the ocean.
Whatever it is, I am excited to keep watching. I’m just paranoid about what Freeform might do to undermine it.
In the meantime, I will be marveling at how unsettlingly convincing Eline Powell is as a crackingly intelligent, always-learning predator barely containing her inhumanity. Feel free to join me.
Siren airs on Freeform on Thursdays at 8 p.m. The first four episodes are available On Demand, or on the Freeform app.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult , Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.