Tag Archives: phony

A Pseudoscientific Apocalypse! THE DEVIL’S GRAVEYARDS: VILE VORTICES REVEALED

THE DEVIL’S GRAVEYARDS on History Channel


(1/5)

Pros: Some thought-provoking moments


Cons: Poor acting, bad script, predictable conclusion, and precisely no scientific credibility

Produced by the same company responsible for such glorious bunk as Discovery Channel’s Megalodon specials, The Devil’s Graveyards: Vile Vortices Revealed is easily the worst of the recent slate of phony cable television documentaries which have been passed off as the real deal. Premiering in late 2014 on The History Channel, this program revolves around “investigate journalist” and apparent moron Don Murphy, who sets out to document the rather esoteric experiments being conducted in the Algerian desert by one Dr. Joseph Spencer. A biologist by trade, Spencer is investigating the reasons why his young son was murdered by the family dog two years prior, and has come to the conclusion that disruptions in the earth’s magnetic field have not only led to various instances of unusual animal behavior (including the unprovoked attack that took his son’s life) but also are threatening the whole of human existence. If a series of twelve magnetic anomalies located around the world known as , the “devil’s graveyards” of the film’s title, are not neutralized, Spencer believes that intense solar radiation will be allowed to seep into Earth’s atmosphere, thus transforming the planet into a lifeless wasteland like Venus or Mars. In an attempt to find a way to neutralize these areas, Spencer and his hapless crew attempt to bombard the Algerian vortex with a powerful electromagnetic pulse. Will this have any significant effect…and more importantly, will any single viewer care?

camera coverage
Good thing there just happens to be twelve cameras situated around the research area so a viewer gets to see everything as it happens…

Based largely on the rather sketchy theories of zoologist Dr. Ivan Sanderson who, while investigating disappearances in the , initially came up with the idea of the so-called “vile vortices,” The Devil’s Graveyard starts off with a disclaimer which states that “this dramatization is based on an actual 1972 document entitled ‘The Twelve Devil’s Graveyards Around the World.” This notice goes on to reveal that the network airing the program does not in any way endorse the claims made in it, thus one can at least say the program makes some attempt to inform an attentive viewer that not everything here can be taken entirely (or at all) seriously. That a similar warning appearing during the end titles flashes on screen for a split second speaks to the fact that the producers are more probably trying to pull a fast one on the viewer. On some level, this is (yet another) obvious extension of History Channel programming of the Ancient Aliens variety; Devil’s Graveyards goes so far as to suggest with a straight face that extraterrestrials were in fact responsible for creating the vile vortices in the first place, a suggestion that’s more idiotic than half of the alien theories presented by the likes of Giorgio Tsoukalos. It also heaps on the conspiracy theories, referencing bizarre Nazi experiments and even the controversial while blaming everything from massive bird die-offs to Hurricane Katrina on the vortex phenomenon. Needless to say, when it comes to actual hard proof and scientific evidence, Graveyard comes up short.

and here he is...
And here he is ladies and gentleman…a random actor…I mean Dr. Joseph Spencer.


Even if director Douglas Glover goes to great lengths to make Devil’s Graveyards look and play like a legit documentary however, it more seemed to me like the people responsible for this program had watched a few too many classic sci-fi movies – the show has many aspects reminiscent of the outstanding 1985 film and even has a “don’t flip that switch” moment ripped right from the playbook of the classic Ghostbusters. Furthermore, the general premise of the program isn’t entirely dissimilar from the plot of the 1953 low-budget genre flick since a radioactive isotope, not a flesh and blood monster, is the “villain” of the piece. This, of course, makes Graveyards noticeably uninteresting and plain dull when compared to the likes of Wrath of Submarine or Russian Yeti since the main “threat” presented herein is theoretical rather than something one can see.

periodic table
Sure, aliens might be readying for an invasion, but THIS IS THE REAL ENEMY!

To be honest, the vile vortex theory is simply too scientifically complex (and maybe, too ridiculous) for the average viewer to comprehend: the program does its best to explain things, but this only makes for a very talky and awkward program since the characters literally have to spell everything out for viewers who wouldn’t otherwise understand anything being discussed. I suppose the door for this kind of programming has been left open by the numerous recent television series dealing with unexplained phenomena, but I still have to question the decision to produce a feature length mockumentary about vile vortices in the first place. Could it be that the these fake documentaries have already exhausted the pool of topics to draw from?

bye


Acting throughout the program is frankly awful: we’re supposed to believe that we’re watching real people dealing with real situations, but this notion is simply impossible to swallow. Witness the laughable scene where the actor portraying Joseph Spencer recalls the death of his son, then has an “emotional” breakdown moment. This actor doesn’t do much better of a job portraying the excitement of the scientist when a breakthrough in his experiment seems evident, and it’s similarly amusing to watch the actress portraying the research team’s electrical engineer try to keep a straight face when conducting high school chem lab level experiments and demonstrations. Special attention must be paid to the actor portraying the team’s “conspiracy expert:” why this guy would be needed as part of a scientific team is unclear, but he always seems to provide definitive “A-HA” moments when the scientific gobbledygook gets a little thick. Clearly the worst actor of the bunch is the one portraying reporter Don Murphy: this guy’s “investigative reporting” is atrocious and he gives the most forced performance on display in the program – especially when he’s seen on-camera narrating his own story.

ominous music playing...
…ominous music playing…

Combine the bad acting with the lousy scripting and absurd, utterly outlandish theories the show puts forward and you’ve got the most abominable of the recent, made-for-cable faux-documentaries. The Devil’s Graveyard not only looks cheap and hastily-made, but is extremely clunky in terms of its construction. The prime example of how this production is simply incompetent is the use of “actual cell phone footage” of Dr. Spencer’s son being attacked by his dog: I would assume this sequence was supposed to be dramatic, but it’s downright humorous after being repeated for about the fifteenth time. Compounding the problem is a sense of story development that is overall too tidy and convenient to be a convincing portrayal of reality. Finally, the film leans heavily on explanations that most viewers wouldn’t even remotely be able to decipher: there’s simply too much scientific nonsense presented as absolute fact here, and I suspect the bullshit detecters of most viewers would be sounding throughout the film. Does this program propose some intriguing ideas and offer up some food for thought? Sure: it’s compelling in the same way that most programs dealing with mysterious phenomena are. At the end of the day however, why would one waste his time with a completely illogical and mind-numbingly phony program like this – especially one that’s undeniably this poorly made? (Interesting note: the studio responsible for this program doesn’t even list it among its credits; perhaps they too realized what hogwash they had brought onto the world.) Predictable and ultimately, a complete waste of time, The Devil’s Graveyards is best avoided.

wtf science

This Youtube Video is about as quality as the “documentary:”

Why…Just Why? ALASKA MONSTERS

ALASKA MONSTERS


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(0/5)

Pros: May amuse some people, though that may be an indication that there’s no longer any hope left for humanity


Cons: Completely…utterly…hopelessly unnecessary, phonier than a three dollar bill, and dumber than five boxes of rocks

Another week; another positively ludicrous phony monster hunt program. Alaska Monsters is the Destination America channel’s latest entry in the crypto-reality genre, following the exploits of a monster hunting crew located in the “last frontier” of the forty-ninth state. As has come to be the norm, we have the usual gang of characters: team leader “Little Bear,” a trap engineer named Todd, tech specialist Levi, a fellow named Rhett who’s billed as the “rookie,” a trapper named “Face” who’s the obvious “wild card” of the group and finally, a “researcher” who goes by the name of – get ready for it – “Crusty.” This gang, known as the “Midnight Sons” has been tracking creatures in Alaska since 2008 (at least if you believe anything this show is trying to tell you), and in the first episode of the reality show revolving around them, go in search of Alaska’s Bigfoot-like creature that’s known locally as the “Wild Man.”

first episode
On the first episode of Alaska Monsters, the team searches for “security expert” Huckleberry. Wait…that ain’t right…

The program follows the now very well-established monster hunt formula to a ‘T’: it starts with the initial night “recon” mission, involves a few eyewitness accounts (one of whom declares he was “out here gettin’ wood with my dog…” sounds like a personal problem), and sputters towards a final “midnight hunt” that puts the team directly in the path of an imaginary beast created solely through dubbed-in sound effects and blank expressions of fear from the actors…er…team members. Alaska Monsters seems a bit more modern in terms of the gear used during the investigations featured on it: in this first episode, the team not only utilizes night vision and FLIR infrared technology, but also a small drone with a camera mounted on it to survey the nearby landscape. This allows the seemingly misplaced Levi character (who seems not at all at home alongside a group of people one would expect to see waiting in line at the local soup kitchen) a sense of purpose in the show. Rhett, on the other hand, has nary a thing to do throughout the program and I’m not even sure that he takes part in the final night investigation that mainly involves the team tramping around a saw mill with firearms at the ready. After some obviously scripted “suspense” (“Oh no! A production assistant is shaking this blind I’m sitting in!”) and plenty of dubious acting on the part of the cast, the team walks away without a single solitary piece of evidence relating to the creature they’ve been pursuing. The show (like every episode of Mountain Monsters) ends with the crew making vague insinuations and wisecracks about the existence of the creature in an attempt to convince a viewer that he hasn’t just witnessed a load of complete bullshit.

supposedly scary scene
This poorly concocted, “scary” scene stands as the premiere episode’s climax.

It really is astonishing to me that somewhere, some network executive is giving each and every one of these absolutely ridiculous and devastatingly pointless monster programs the green light – and actually spending some money on their production. The ultimate sad fact about shows like this one, Monsters Underground, Swamp Monsters and Mountain Monsters (which lost all credibility or, more importantly, sense of fun it once had during a painful to behold second season) is that they make shows like Destination Truth and even Finding Bigfoot look not only like top-notch entertainment but actually, undeniably credible. Let’s not forget that Destination Truth’s host Josh Gates wasn’t at all afraid to admit that he found no evidence of the at best rare and more probably completely imaginary creatures he was seeking and Finding Bigfoot still has not one solid bit of evidence after five full seasons. The notion of a monster hunt program that doesn’t instantaneously come up with a creature seems almost preposterous in context of this new breed of monster hunt programs exemplified by any of the Mountain Monsters clones that not only invents fictitious and frequently outlandish beasts, but then tries extremely hard through glaringly phony video evidence, sketchy eyewitness reports, and falsified, scripted scenarios to convince the audience of their actual flesh and blood existence. I’m kind of scared to see what happens on the next season of Finding Bigfoot: will that show even continue when it becomes impossible to ignore the fact that there’s still nothing on the hill?

After an overload of absurdly similar and increasingly worthless programs, I would hope that most people would recognize the fact that very few of these monster-related shows are even making any attempt to be authentic in their presentation of content. Hence, it’s impossible for any savvy viewer to take these shows as anything except entertainment – they clearly are not documentaries. That said, it’s surprising how lousy most of them are in the entertainment department, and I think most of that is directly related to the fact that there is absolutely no originality to these shows. Alaska Monsters is a carbon copy of Mountain Monsters, a fact which is best exhibited by examining the characters. Trap builder Todd (much in the way his counterpart Willy does in Mountain Monsters) sets about building the most outrageously elaborate and positively impractical traps one could possibly imagine. In order to catch a Bigfoot-like creature, Todd constructs a “cylinder snare trap” – basically a huge tube with a system in place to close metal wire around a creature trapped inside of it. Why any beast would actually go inside this contraption in the first place is never explained (do these “expert trackers” not realize that their human stench would be hanging over this device like a fog?), and it’s no surprise when something goes wrong with the mechanics of the device and it’s not actually unusable.

acting
ACTING!

Additionally, we have smarmy narration provided by the appropriately named “Crusty,” a guy who seems vaguely unlikable and sleazy (or maybe it’s just that I can’t see the fashion value of the animal claw he wears in his thick, bushy beard) and “Face,” the obligatory “wild card” character who talks in a raspy, cartoonish voice and achieves moments of enlightenment when discussing wild man “doo doo” and imitating Fred Flintstone. I couldn’t possibly make this stuff up. The characters here seem way too “hammy” and almost make Vincent Price performances from the 1970s look restrained in comparison. All in all, there’s simply no way one could take anything in Alaska Monsters seriously – not when “Little Bear,” sporting an outfit that makes him look like a complete d-bag, starts mystically playing a pitch pipe around a campfire and discusses his tendency to “burn sage.” Seriously, where’s Bobo and Ranae when you need them?


So…”Little Bear” (in center) is wearing ass-less chaps, some sort of fur stole, a cowboy hat with the face of a small weasel on it, a fistful of gold rings, and a big, blinging medallion shaped like either a grizzly bear or a domestic hog. And we’re supposed to take this show at all seriously.

I’ve gotten to the point where there’s no way to even describe how atrocious shows like Alaska Monsters really are: this fails horribly as a monster-related program due to not having one iota of credibility, but even as the trashy, clinically dumb piece of populist entertainment that it is, it’s a complete waste, way too similar to other monster hunt shows that any viewer who watches this program probably would be familiar with. The producers don’t seem to be aware of the fact that they’re running this genre of television into the ground through pure, unadulterated, unchecked overkill, and I sincerely hope that someone behind the scenes is making hay while the sun shines, because the genre of the crypto-reality show is very quickly outlasting its relevance and has already overstayed its welcome. Programs like Alaska Monsters not only seem entirely capable of ruining anyone viewer’s interest in the subject of cryptozoology, but make me long for a program where a mysterious creature isn’t instantly located by a group of morons whose idea of “tracking” a creature is whooping, hollering, screaming, and careening through the forest while explaining each and every obvious move they’re making to an audience who is well aware of the absurdity of what they’re watching. I also don’t need any scenes of hobo-looking fellas giving each other a brofist each time they make a smart-ass, scripted remark about a fantasy creature. I never thought I’d say it, but I’m actually looking forward to the new season of Finding Bigfoot just to provide some sort of balance to a genre that’s well out of control at this point – better prepare the lifeboats just in case though…

Shoot First, Invent Monster Later: SWAMP MONSTERS on Discovery Channel

SWAMP MONSTERS on Discovery Channel

(0.5/5)

Pros: Lots of gunfire – it must be good then, right?

Cons: A complete waste of time – it’s not even remotely entertaining or good for a few laughs

Late in the going of the premiere episode of the newest “let’s hunt down a monster” program called Swamp Monsters, one of the characters in the show declares that the whole operation of tracking down a mysterious, dog-like creature “seemed choreographed.” Truer words have never been spoken in the genre of “speculative documentary” programming dealing with the process of hunting down purported monsters…

I'll just leave this here...
I’ll just leave this here…

Blatantly ripping off the basic formula of Mountain Monsters (a show that was none too great in its own right), Swamp Monsters follows a quartet of outdoorsmen from the – get ready for it – Bayou Enforcement Agency for Supernatural Threats (or BEAST) as they “risk life and limb” to investigate reports of various monster-like creatures in the Louisiana bayou. Impossibly, within moments of starting their investigation, the crew is revealed to be “hot on the trail” of the creatures they’re looking for – despite the fact that the animals they’re after probably don’t exist in the first place. The show’s premiere episode (airing August 28, 2014 on the Discovery Channel) dealt with the pursuit of a “devil dog” sort of creature known locally as the “Grunch.” Following a handful of interviews with some of the most sketchy eyewitnesses in monster-related reality TV history and the employment of a half-assed, almost ridiculously elaborate trapping system designed to capture the creature in question, the BEAST group eventually goes on the offensive during a nighttime hunt in which they arm themselves to the teeth with what appears to be semi-automatic rifles. Here’s the kicker though: despite their trap being “infallible” and the gang’s tendency to shoot at anything and everything around them to the point that I probably could have been convinced that I was actually watching a low-budget film chronicling the war in Vietnam…they never find a damn thing. Go figure.

I’m forced at this point to repeat the assessment of the team’s tracker:  “this seems choreographed.”

for as real...
For as “real” as this show is, the gang may as well have been tracking this creature down…

Much like Mountain Monsters, the gang of “good ol’ boys” featured in this show seem suspiciously like low-rent actors going through the motions of attempting to hunt down imaginary monsters. All the stereotypical characters are here: the aforementioned tracker named Boudic, team leader Elliott, “weapons and tactics expert” Yak, and the obligatory “wild man” character who goes by the name of Nacho. As might be expected, the program emphasizes the cohesiveness of this unit, as if none of these “investigators” would be able to handle any sort of operation if forced to tackle it by their lonesome. For all I know, that could be a factual statement – these guys seem not to be the sharpest tools in the shed, cracking lame jokes whenever possible to up the camaraderie level on display. Hell, they invariably refer to each other as “brah,” so they must be best friends since forever, right?

brahs
“Bros in the Bayou”

Just in case the characters don’t seal the deal on this show being a complete crock, a viewer can always rely on the old fashioned monster action to keep himself entertained – or so one would think. Unfortunately, the more of these monster hunt shows that are made, the less credible any of them are – it’s pretty bad when the average crypto-reality (i.e. monster) show on TV these days makes Finding Bigfoot look positively scientific by comparison. Swamp Monsters unleashes some of the most crude and awful-looking CGI renderings of monsters I’ve ever seen and doesn’t even bother to concoct phony home video monster footage to “convince” the viewer that the Grunch is real. Frankly, I’m flabbergasted for the need for this program at all in light of Discovery’s pretty pathetic Beasts of the Bayou program that debuted earlier this year: how much demand could there honestly be for cajun-fried monster shows – especially ones that are this bad?

see the monster?
See the monster? Yeah, neither do I…

As is typically the case in monster-related reality TV shows, it’s impossible to believe that what we’re seeing is happening spontaneously. The camera seems to be aware of things happening before they actually do: if this was a recording of a live event, the camera would follow the action, not predict it. I also have a very hard time buying the fact that the terrain seen in this episode is as inaccessible as the characters would lead us to believe with their constant bickering: there simply wouldn’t be a multiple camera set-up in a location that’s full of quicksand. The whole of Swamp Monsters is very “stagey” and overly dramatic: this is the first and so far only monster show that creates “tension” by revealing that the swamp the characters are trudging through is full of mosquitoes that – GASPmay be carrying the West Nile virus! Though there were many moments during this debut episode that left me rolling my eyes in disgust, for the program to create drama by cashing in on public fear of an epidemic is a new low for crypto-reality TV. In the end, when Nacho breaks out a FLIR thermal imaging camera after declaring he’s surrounded by Grunches only to see nothing in the viewfinder, that says all one really needs to know about the authenticity of this program.

sad thing is
Sad thing is, it doesn’t take much to make the bayou out to be a pretty darn creepy place.

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m actually getting sick of all the monster programming that’s turning up on the “education” channels these days. The fact that new series are popping up every other week, with even more on the way, is plain ludicrous: these shows are beating a at this point and further programming will only initiate the final death roll that will put the crypto-reality genre out of its misery. The sad thing is, I love shows like this – or at least what shows like this could be if they actually had some inclination to present genuine information. Unfortunately, there seems to be precisely no effort on the part of the producers of many of these programs to conduct a more scientific, factually-based investigation: it’s much more convenient to follow a script, manipulate an audience to an outrageous extent, and create false drama with things occurring just off-camera.

Where's swamp thing
Where’s Swamp Thing when you need him?

The fact that Swamp Monsters is phony as all get out honestly isn’t it’s worst trait. The thing that kills it is that it’s not even all that entertaining as reality TV: what is the point of this show? It’s extremely lazily produced and easily the lowest common denominator of a genre of programs that’s notoriously bad in the first place. Thankfully, it appears that viewers would only have to suffer through two additional episodes (dealing with …yawn…the Honey Island Swamp Monster and the “Old Faithful” of bayou monster program subjects, the Rougarou/Cajun Werewolf) which apparently will air on the Destination America channel sometime in the future. I sincerely hope that this atrocious series is not renewed; thinning out the ranks of monster programs on TV might might just make the concept fresh again. As it stands now, this whole genre of program is on most definitely on life support…and fading fast.

SHARK WEEK 2014 FINAL WRAP UP – MEGALODON: THE NEW EVIDENCE // GREAT WHITE MATRIX // SHARKSANITY

MEGALODON: THE NEW EVIDENCE / GREAT WHITE MATRIX / SHARKSANITY

(2/5)

Pros: One worthwhile show

Cons: …and with that, Shark Week stumbles across the finish line.

As might be expected, Shark Week 2014 started off with a bang, then started to run out of steam around midweek. Though I was even willing to buy the “speculative documentary” Shark of Darkness for what it was (i.e. a phony documentary designed to create social media buzz), Shark Week 2014’s most questionable move in my book was its inclusion of Megalodon: The New Evidence on Friday, August 15. This program acted as a sort of follow-up to 2013’s Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives, another pseudo-documentary in which a team of actors …er scientists in South Africa attempts to prove that the gigantic prehistoric shark that has seemingly inspired dozens upon dozens of Syfy Channel made-for-cable movies still roams the earth’s oceans. Unfortunately, in focusing even more attention on an iffy original “documentary” that not only was instantly called out by any and all respectable scientists but also drew heavy criticism from viewers not all that enamored with the fact that Discovery Channel would pass something so blatantly phony off as being real, it appears that Shark Week as a whole is more a publicity-generating machine rather than a unique opportunity to educate viewers about the ocean’s ultimate and most fearsome predators.

boat attack
This just in: the boat attack at the center of the Megalodon documentary still didn’t actually happen.

Megalodon: The New Evidence
took the same format as the equally ridiculous that turned up on Animal Planet a few years back. Set up as a roundtable discussion between Collin Drake, the “scientist” who ran the Megalodon expedition, and interviewer Emmett Miller, The New Evidence went on to provide more sketchy video footage purporting to document the existence of sixty-foot sharks prowling the high seas. As much as anything seen in the original documentary was not at all convincing, watching “new evidence” showing a huge but obviously computer-generated shark attacking a pod of sperm whales is absolutely preposterous, as is listening to various “expert testimony” about the creature – most of which revolves around (you guessed it) a government conspiracy to hide the truth from the public. Groan! If the information (term used loosely) featured in the show wasn’t bad enough, the news program format seemed very corny and forced – with the actors doing their best but failing to add much credibility to the discussion.

holy cow
Recreated Megalodon jaws. With a little photoshop, this could be more “evidence” proclaiming the creature still exists.

I think anyone who would have watched The New Evidence (or the “extended cut” version of the original Monster Shark Lives documentary that preceded it) would know by this point that the whole thing was made up. Hell, if he was paying attention, a viewer would have seen the (purposely) very fleeting admission that “certain events and characters presented in the program have been dramatized.” Still, the whole of The New Evidence program not only seemed like it was beating a horse that died a painful death last year, embroiling the Discovery Channel in all sorts of controversy, but also served absolutely no purpose: to devote a whole night of Shark Week 2014 to the Megalodon considering this already was done the previous year is just absurd. A program like this speaks volumes about the level of incredulity that’s a prerequisite going into any program featured on the Discovery Channel these days.

yeah
think?

Thankfully, Saturday night’s Great White Matrix got back to basics, focusing on the efforts of longtime Shark Week contributor Andy Casagrande and Australian navy diver and shark attack survivor Paul de Gelder (who lost both his leg and arm to a bull shark attack) to photograph the bite of adult great white sharks using a “Matrix-style” camera rig. This curved assembly of some twenty cameras would allow researchers to study how the physics of a shark bite works from a variety of angles simultaneously, and also enable them to determine the difference between mature shark attacks and those that would be perpetrated by juvenile animals. This footage would be important since Great White Matrix devotes a decent amount of its hour-long duration to examining the possibility that juveniles are responsible for the majority (and an increasing number) of attacks on humans due to the fact that they are sort of “testing the waters” of potential prey items as they transition from feeding on fish (as they do in their adolescent period) to devouring large sea creatures like seals and sea lions once they reach full adulthood.

little too close

During this program, Casagrande and de Gelder consult various scientists studying the mechanics of the shark jaw, revealing how adult sharks are able not only to inflict heavy damage on their prey but also utilize a sort of vacuum action to capture them. I found this information to be pretty interesting as it explains the very distinctive jaw action in the typical white shark attack – namely, the jaw seeming to protrude from and almost separate from the structure of the head. Juvenile sharks are unable to fully accomplish this action, thus although they are able to inflict severe damage on humans, attacks from juvenile sharks are somewhat more “survivable” than those committed by mature adults.

yikes
Yikes! Casagrande photographing white sharks sans protective cage.

Typical with honest Shark Week documentaries, Great White Matrix had some amazing underwater footage, including truly otherworldly images taken in the Neptune Islands region showing less aggressive sand tiger sharks swimming amidst large schools of bait fish. There’s almost a dream-like quality to some of these images, but the program “gets real” during the climactic scenes in which Cassagrande attempts to photograph the bite of a large white shark nicknamed “Sidewinder.” In the “probably not the safest thing in the world” department, we also get a few jaw-dropping moments in which Cassagrande and de Gelder (who dives with the use of a special prosthetic fin attached in place of his missing leg) swim in shark-infested waters without the use of a protective cage. Though divers can get better camera images without the cage, it seems very dangerous to swim unprotected even around relatively small (i.e. twelve foot) juvenile white sharks.

insane
There’s insane, then there’s Paul de Gelder insane – the man still dives even after all losing his arm and leg to a shark.

The final original and feature program of 2014’s Shark Week was Sharksanity which aired on Saturday night: just judging by that title (which makes it sound like the next shark-related monster flick playing on Syfy Channel), one can get a pretty good gauge of what a viewer is in for here. Easily the least worthwhile program I saw during this year’s Shark Week, this program was hosted and narrated by “Bob, The Shark,” i.e. the would-be comedian dressed up in a shark costume. Acting as a sort of recap of the entire week’s worth of programming as well as a chance for viewers to vote on their favorite Shark Week moments from this year and past, this show was both completely unnecessary and obnoxious – viewers who had watched the week’s programs would have no reason to watch this “greatest hits” sort of program, and its sole purpose seemed to be to attract large amounts of social media buzz.

bob the shark
When Bob the Shark popped up onscreen, I knew I was in for a barrel of laughs…

With lousy attempts at humor put forth by the narration, Sharksanity simply replayed various segments from shows that aired earlier in the week while offering up some fan-voted clips that showed the best moments from the 27-year history of Shark Week. These clips fell into various categories – best bite, best “cage rattle,” most fearless filmmaker, best “close call” moment, etc. – and there were some unbelievable moments chronicled. In my mind though, Sharksanity played like one big pat on the back for Discovery Channel – which may be deserved considering the fact that Shark Week has been around for three decades. It also however indicated to me that the motivations for this week-long block of shark-related programming has gotten increasingly questionable over time. In an era where sharks are being hunted almost to the point of extinction in some areas, shouldn’t Shark Week maybe focus more on real issues instead of embracing the fact that some people will prattle away incessantly on twitter and facebook throughout the whole week in an attempt to see their name on TV?

seriously
Seriously people…

Maybe my biggest problem with Shark Week anymore is one that filmmaker Andy Casagrande mentioned himself during the week when he seemed to question whether making specials that focus on gnashing jaws and stories of shark attack victims narrowly escaping death is really having the desired effect on viewers. Jaws author Peter Benchley made it his life’s goal to increase shark conservation efforts despite being the one person perhaps most responsible for defining the shark as the ultimate predator and source of fear for many people. I guess my hope in the end is that Shark Week would turn out to be more than just a high-profile week of sensationalized programming designed simply to create a social media firestorm. Judging from the past few years in which the Discovery Channel has tossed education aside in favor of entertainment though, it seems as if such a proposition is unlikely, and we can probably expect more hit-or-miss programming in the future.

More Like This, Discovery Channel:

Shark Week 2014 Night One: SHARK OF DARKNESS // AIR JAWS – FIN OF FURY

SHARK OF DARKNESS: WRATH OF SUBMARINE and AIR JAWS: FIN OF FURY

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(3.5/5)

Pros: A solid documentary and an enjoyable piece of entertainment

Cons: Some people just won’t appreciate the fake documentary format

One of the channel’s most anticipated annual programming blocks, Discovery Channel’s Shark Week now appears to have adopted the “mockumentary” as one of its hallmark events. The 2014 edition of this week of shows dealing with the ultimate undersea predators kicked off on August 10 with three hours of all-new specials, culminating in the two hour Shark of Darkness: Wrath of Submarine. Having seen quite a few of the fake documentaries that have featured both on Discovery Channel and Animal Planet in recent years, I’d probably call Shark of Darkness one of the more phony-looking ones of the bunch – it’s full of improbable situations, lousy acting, unconvincing action sequences, and lots of iffy historical perspective. It appears that Discovery is no longer even attempting to convince people these shows are authentic, which is perhaps unsurprising after the furor surrounding last year’s Megalodon “documentary.” Though many viewers would quickly dismiss Shark of Darkness as “b.s.” or drone on and on about how they’re “disappointed” that Discovery Channel would air something like this, these people probably should just chill out. It’s well-produced and certainly decent enough for what it is.

c'mon
If you really think this looks like a real newspaper heading, you need to get out more.

Prior to the hokey but enjoyable Shark of Darkness, Discovery did choose to air an hour-long legitimate documentary called Air Jaws: Fin of Fury. This program followed a camera crew around both South Africa and New Zealand in search of an approximately 18-foot-long great white nicknamed “Colossus.” This animal had been photographed several years ago performing attacks on a rubber seal decoy in which the shark launched itself out of the water in spectacular fashion, then had all but vanished from view. Circa 2013, photographer Jeff Kurr embarks on a journey to try and find the creature again.

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Images taken of great whites performing aerial attacks in False Bay, South Africa are positively stunning.

Fin of Fury features quite a bit of discussion about white shark habits and habitation, exploring the notion that perhaps South Africa’s large colony of great whites migrates to New Zealand at certain times of the year. Per usual, this program features some stunning underwater images of sharks in action: it would be a treat for anyone interested in sharks, particularly the imposing great white. It’s pretty unbelievable to see the sheer number of sharks inhabiting the locations in which this show was filmed: at any given point, there are many (large!) whites surrounding the researchers. Additionally, this program featured a few new innovations for photographing large sharks in their natural habitat. One was a movable cage called the WASP (Water Armor Shark Protection) that allows a cameraman to crawl along the sea floor in a protective suit of steel. This device certainly demonstrated its integrity during Fin of Fury – several sharks appeared quite interested in the contraption and a few even attempted to attack it.

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By far the more eye-opening sequence in Fin of Fury however was one in which a shark researcher named Dickie Chivell employs a female shark decoy in an attempt to lure large white sharks in. This decoy is one of the flimsiest things imaginable, made of interlocking wooden slats, and it appears to do its job remarkably well since numerous sharks come in to investigate and snap at the thing. Probably one of the most insane stunts ever seen during Shark Week occurs when Dickie decides to ride on and pilot the decoy while several large and inquisitive sharks swirl around. Considering how sketchy an idea this seems indicates that Chivell is either more courageous or more downright stupid (perhaps a combination of both) than most of his colleagues in the field of shark research, but this sequence (along with the genuinely educational value of the program) certainly made Fin of Fury something to see.

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Chivell’s got some pretty serious balls to be attempting something like this – that shark decoy is FLIMSY!

Shark of Darkness, on the other hand, would likely either entertain or annoy any individual viewer. It’s worth pointing out that right off the bat this program declares that “events have been dramatized,” and it seems no accident that that statement is rather ambiguous. I’d go so far as to declare that this entire program is made up, but that’s more or less a moot point with regard to a program that quite obviously is entertainment and nothing else.

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This program deals with the search for a 35-foot long great white nicknamed “The Submarine” which has been spotted intermittently in South African waters since the early 1970s – speculation about the existence of this creature was part of the inspiration for 2013’s Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives. This time around, Discovery Channel concocts a story about a whale watching ship that sinks in shark-infested waters, with the presence of the huge “Submarine” hampering the rescue effort. Combining interviews with survivors of the accident, “scientists” and shark eyewitnesses with “authentic footage” and an assured narration, Shark of Darkness is, like most of the other Discovery Channel fake documentaries, fairly clever in its set-up and construction. The fact that this program isn’t as factual as it claims to be however will likely make or break the show for viewers: those looking strictly for educational value will scoff at this thing, but those who just accept it as the entertainment piece is so clearly is will be entertained.

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As with previous pseudocumentaries, there are several elements that give this one away as being fictional. For one, the “found footage” format used in the program simply doesn’t work after a while: it’s impossible to believe that this many cameras (which just so happen to capture all the major events in the story) were available during the rescue effort which supposedly happened rather hastily and spontaneously. Additionally, though the CGI effects seen throughout this program are capably done (images of a huge shark are added into several scenes, and we even see the beast taking a few human victims), they’re simply not all that convincing – if this footage did exist, don’t you think news agencies would have been all over it? Finally, the script during this program gets all the more ridiculous and incredible as it goes along. I was willing to suspend my disbelief for a certain period of time (and even accept the overly convenient video coverage), but when the “Submarine” takes on almost supernatural powers and scientists endlessly harp on about how intelligent the creature is, the credibility of the program quickly vanished.

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CGI shark in 3…2…1…

Although the acting during Shark of Darkness frequently comes across as forced and exaggerated (the whole thing seems very scripted, and one woman’s tearful recollection of the boating accident almost borders on being humorous), the program does effectively crank up the suspense at various times. The “Submarine” is effectively hidden from view much of the time, giving the creature a sort of shadowy, intimidating presence that looms over everything else happening in the film. The imperfect “amateur video” images seen in the film also do their part to make the ongoing story quite tense – especially when one rescuer has to venture into the shark-infested waters in an effort to save three people still (inexplicably) trapped on the sunken vessel. Though this whole notion of people surviving on a submerged ship for quite a lengthy period of time seems completely unlikely (a pretty serious flaw in the script in my opinion), it certainly makes for a potentially frightening conclusion to the story.

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Generally speaking, Shark of Darkness does a fine job of faking the documentary format, once again demonstrating that Pilgrim Studios (a sort of Discovery Channel R&D department who have produced most of these pseudodocumentaries) have mastered the format. By 2014, it’s been well-established that these sorts of programs are staples of both Animal Planet and Discovery Channel’s programming lineup, making the instantaneous chatter about how this program “isn’t real” more or less irrelevant – after all, is this program any less fake than the swarms of reality TV shows that pop up on Discovery Channel? If anything, I’d have to say that Shark of Darkness, like the other fake documentaries that came before it, deserves commendation for getting people’s attention – shows like this are designed to promote discussion and garner interest, thus I’d have to call the program a massive success.

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Is “Submarine” really out there somewhere?

I’d be the first to declare things like this to be sketchy in terms of their motivations: I’d much rather see legit documentaries on Discovery Channel, but let’s get real: in an era where hype conquers all, it’s not at all surprising that shows like this have taken over even on the “educational channels.” The stream of live Twitter responses featured during the program shows where Discovery Channel’s priorities lie: they try to make these programs into an “event” rather than just another television show. Would a straight-faced documentary have gotten that kind of attention? Surely Shark of Darkness has its problems, but it’s perfect for what it is: viewers willing to roll with the punches are likely to enjoy it.

Amateur video used in Shark of Darkness:

Just What the World Needs: Another Phony Monster Show! BEASTS OF THE BAYOU

BEASTS OF THE BAYOU on the Discovery Channel

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(2/5)

Pros: Monsters – with just a dash of science

Cons: If I say that this show is a ripoff of Mountain Monsters, what does that tell you?

It’s sad to say that the genre of the “monster hunt” television show may actually have hit its finest hour with the advent of shows like Monster Quest and Destination: Truth, both of which had a fairly lengthy run in the late 2000’s and early 2010s. Circa 2014, this genre of TV show which originated decades earlier with the comparatively sober In Search Of… has been overrun with an increasing number of programs which seem to possess not one iota of authenticity. Programming like Desination America’s Mountain Monsters pushes credibility to the breaking point, while History Channel’s Cryptid: The Swamp Beast flat out acknowledges that the whole show is one big dramatization. If we combine those two shows and add just a dash of actual science, we wind up with Discovery Channel’s newest creation Beasts of the Bayou. This show follows the adventures of 400-pound shrimp fisherman-turned halfass monster wrangler Timothy “Blimp” Cheramie (previously, the star of Discovery’s Ragin’ Cajuns reality series) who, along with first mate Eric Tiser and nephew Nathan Neal (“who spent the past few years living wild”), attempts to track down some of Louisiana’s most legendary (and most preposterous) monsters.

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OK – so this here may be Blimp’s worst idea ever.

I first saw Blimp on the 2013 Shark Week special Voodoo Sharks, which culminated in a scene of the morbidly obese shrimp boat captain diving into the world’s most vulnerable, ineffective shark cage in an attempt to photograph mysterious sharks that had infested the Louisiana bayou. Apparently, the “success” of this program led to Blimp landing the Beasts of the Bayou gig, and the show first appeared during Discovery Channel’s 2014 “Monster Week” with a show dealing with the “Cajun Werewolf” also known as the “Rougarou.” This premiere episode saw Blimp and his crew replicating the basic formula already established by the overweight hillbillies featured in Mountain Monsters by (inexplicably) instantly locating a supposed monster and subsequently using a variety of traps pulled straight out of a Wile E. Coyote cartoon in an effort to capture said beast (say it with me: it’s a “woof“). As Blimp, Eric, and Nathan bumble around in the swamps making fools out of themselves however, Beasts of the Bayou one ups some of the competition by actually having a scientist appear in the program doing his own investigation into the appearance of so-called “coy wolves” – wolves that have cross bred with coyotes. In a brilliant PR move, the scientist conducting this research is none other than Idaho University professor of anatomy and anthropology Jeff Meldrum, who’s become widely known as being one of the few “academics” taking research into the existence of Sasquatch seriously. Forget the fact that Meldrum (a primate specialist) has about no reason to be doing this type of research about canines – the guy instantly adds infinitely more scientific credibility to Beasts of the Bayou than features regularly in shows like Mountain Monsters or even Finding Bigfoot.

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“Yessir; these folks are some honest to goodness MONSTER HUNTERS.”

A few weeks after the “Cajun Werewolf” episode, Beasts of the Bayou finally found a home of its own on Discovery’s Thursday night programming lineup, debuting in this time slot with an episode focusing on the “Altie,” a sort of Loch Ness Monster marine creature reportedly prowling the southern United States. Blimp and the gang head into action again in (an increasingly absurd and utterly unbelievable) search for the (even more unbelievable and absurd) creature. Seriously, wait until you see the purported “video evidence” showing Altie appear behind a jet skier… talk about HOKEY. Meanwhile, a Tulane University scientist named Dr. Henry Bart conducts a search looking for alligator gar who have migrated deep into the Louisiana swamp. Apparently, extreme levels of pollution have caused this migration (and images of the jaw-dropping pollution level in the bayou are easily the most shocking thing about this episode), resulting in these strange, dangerous-appearing but relatively harmless large fish coming into contact with people more frequently. This “Loch Ness Swamp” episode features some positively ridiculous moments (including one confounding moment where an unknown animal almost drags Blimp’s rather large, ramshackle boat into the drink) and builds to a ludicrous finale that doesn’t so much as prove a thing. Yep – without doubt this is another somewhat compelling but ultimately asinine monster hunt show!

My biggest problem with Beasts of the Bayou is precisely the same one I had with the equally moronic Mountain Monsters: though these shows claim to be portraying real events, there is simply no way this is true. Cameras seem to be positioned in precisely the right position to capture events that we’re supposed to believe are occurring live, as we watch – but anyone familiar with television/film production (or with half a brain) would realize that unless the production crew knew what was going to happen beforehand (either by using pre-scripted directions or psychic powers of precognition), this would not be possible. In a nutshell: scenes here – particularly the more prominent ones involving Blimp, Eric, and Nathan’s (mis)adventures – look way too slick, polished, and stylized for me to have any confidence that they provide a record of actual events, and I’d ultimately have to declare that the majority of this program is absolutely phony.

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“What…you mean to tell me you can’t see the monster lurking to the left of the center of this photo??!?”

Without doubt, there’s a crowd out there that will take this show at face value, indicative of the fact that the makers of reality television have (by 2014) all but mastered the art of manipulating an audience. When shows like 2012’s Mermaids: The Body Found actually convince a large portion of the viewing population that these mythical beings are real, it may be time for us as a society to seriously investigate why some of us are so willing to believe anything that’s seen on TV (or found on the internet for that matter). In fairness, there are some scenes seen in Beasts that are probably real enough. The sequences involving the actual scientists doing rather mundane experiments and research in the bayou region are at least plausible, seeming less “set up” and more spontaneous – they don’t build to an obvious “cliffhanger moment” right before a commercial break. As has been proven before (in films like the notorious Cannibal Holocaust), if undeniably real sequences are played next to fabricated ones, a viewer is more likely to believe that the faked scenes are in fact real due entirely to the context in which those faked scenes were presented. It’s actually quite smart for the makers of Beasts of the Bayou to use this theory to their advantage.

As iffy as the show is overall, the alternately humorous, informative, and somewhat eerie Beasts of the Bayou is probably about as enjoyable an hour of television as the remarkably similar Mountain Monsters. For Beasts to play as an obvious ripoff of that incredibly questionable Destination America show however tells me that the “monster hunt” genre of television programs is nearing the end of its natural life and probably should be drug out behind the barn pretty soon. Centered around the natural spookiness of the swamps as well as on some creepy campfire tales and local legends, Beasts may have a bit more scary potential than the typical “lets chase monsters around in the dark” program, but it’d be a stretch to call it anything more than an mildly entertaining time waste. In the end, I’m not sure I’d honestly recommend it, even to those who dig monster-oriented programming.

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