Friday, October 05, 2012

H2O Just Add Water

A few months ago I was looking for something pirate-related to write about and decided to research the mermaid fad (women and girls are paying $100+ for mermaid tails to swim in). Along the way I discovered that there was an Australian TV show about three part-time mermaids. It ran for three years starting in 2006 and is still being shown on Nickelodeon's teen channel. It is also available on Hulu so I watched a couple of episodes. Usually shows aimed at teenagers with teenage casts are painful to watch (even the ads for most Disney teen shows are bad). This show turned out to be intelligently written. The principles are all a couple of years older than their characters which helps their acting. Anyway, a few episodes were enough to convince me to watch the rest of the season over a few weeks.

The show has a large cast. There are four regulars plus supporting characters who are in most episodes. There is low-level continuity. Main plot points are seldom mentioned from one episode to the next but several story arcs act as B-plots. There is also an amazing amount of back-story that figures into the series - much more than for most adult series. This is especially true with the supporting character Zane and his relationship with the principles.

I'm mainly going to talk about characterization, back-story, and story arcs because I suspect that most viewers do not notice this.

The premise is that three high-school girls happen to be in a pool of water in an extinct volcano on Mako Island when the moon strikes it. The next day they discover that they become mermaids whenever they get wet (hence the series title). They also gain water-related powers. One can freeze water, one can boil it, and the third can move it telekinetically. They can swim extremely fast and hold their breath for 15+ minutes (they do not breath underwater). They are also affected by the full moon in different ways.

The transformation happens around ten seconds after they get wet allowing enough time to dry off small splatters. Otherwise it is uncontrollable. When the girls transform, their clothes vanish but they get tops that match their tails. Also their hair is always loose when they are mermaids. This happens the other way, also. At one point Emma tries dying her hair but the process involves water so she is only a redhead when a Mermaid.

The mermaids are:

Cleo. She is the one who can shape water. She is the least mature. She fights with her younger sister constantly. Her father is a bit over-protective (although she is only 15 at the beginning of the series). Cleo finds school work difficult but works hard and is tutored by her long-time friend and would-be scientist, Lewis. She is deeply interested in sea life, possibly because her father is a commercial fisherman. Her room has a wall-sized mural of sea life and she has some fish. Eventually she gets a job at the local marine park (Sea World but the name is never mentioned). Ironically, Cleo does not swim. At first she sees transforming into a mermaid as a curse and refuses to even try swimming as a mermaid. Eventually she comes to love being a mermaid.

Emma. She can freeze things. She attempts to be the perfect daughter and student. She gets along with her brother much better than Cleo and her sister. Emma often tells the others how hell her family gets along because they are perfectly honest with each other. Of course, keeping a secret like being a mermaid from her family causes rifts. Before becoming a mermaid, Cleo was a champion swimmer and had to drop out of the swim team. This was difficult for her but she was quick to embrace her mermaid abilities. At times she is obsessive/compulsive about planning (seriously, if she was my daughter we would be seeing a councilor about this).

Rikki. She heats things. She is the least "girly". She has a sharp tongue and often lacks tact. She is a slacker who doesn't bother to study but can is very capable when she applies herself. She is also good in a crisis. Rikki is a blank slate in the first season. With the other girls we see their parents and siblings. It takes until the second season before we learn much about Rikki. We never hear her talk about herself to the other girls but she tells Emma's brother that she has never had any close friends and that friendship scares her. Later she tells Zane that her parents divorced over money. She is the most enthusiastic about their transformation. After her first swim as a mermaid, she tells Emma that it was the greatest experience of her life. Before her powers manifested she berated the other two for complaining while they were using their powers.

The final principal is Lewis, Cleo's long-time friend and eventual boyfriend. The girls confide in him early on and he spends a lot of time and effort trying to help them understand their transformation. He is absolutely under-appreciated.

There are four story arcs. The first is pretty subtle and involves Rikki's relationship with the other girls (and intersects with Zane's story arc). The first time we see Rikki, she doesn't know the other girls. Zane had offended her somehow and she got back at him by stealing the spark plug from his boat's motor. For some reason he blames Cleo and sets her adrift (remember, she can't swim). Rikki jumps on board, replaces the spark plug and takes Cleo for a joy ride. It is briefly mentioned that the two have never talked before. Rikki is the new girl and is surprised that Cleo even knows her name. They pick up Emma and end up on Mako Island. Had they not become mermaids Rikki would probably never have become friends with the others. Instead she bonds with Emma after the two of them take their first swim as mermaids. In an early episode Emma is having a party and has to add Rikki to the guest list. even by the end of the season, Rikki is still more private than the others and more likely to keep secrets from them. This includes dating Zane and the fact that she lives in a trailer park (which does not come out until the second season).

The next involves the back-story of the 1950s mermaids. While swimming in the Moon Pool on Mako Island, Emma discovers a silver locket. She keeps it for a while then gives it to Cleo who wears it constantly. An old lady recognizes it and immediately knows where it came from. She begins dropping hints that she knows about mermaids and later warns the girls about the full moon. It eventually turns out that her name is Louise Chatham and she was a mermaid in the 1950s along with two friends. The other two have died and Mrs. Chatham is a widow living on an old houseboat and a bit of a hippy. Each of the 1950s mermaids had a locket. They had them made to remind them of their friendship after a failed romance broke them apart. There is some concern that Rikki is going to repeat the mistakes of the 1950s mermaid. Instead she ends up with the final locket. Mrs. Chatham gives her locket to Emma so that they will be a set again. After that, the girls wear the lockets constantly.

The main story arc involves Zane. His family has been friends with Emma's for years and they knew each other since they were two. Recently Emma and Zane had a falling out. Zane is tall, handsome, and rich. He comes across as a spoiled rich boy and is often rude and derogatory. At first he is mainly comic relief with the point of some plots seeing him humiliated.

Things begin to change when we meet his father, a plastic surgeon and land developer. He regards Zane as a disappointment and borders on verbal abuse. Zane tries to win his father's approval by wind-surfing around Mako Island and breaking his father's speed record. He arranges for Lewis to record it for a video contest but Lewis has boat trouble and falls behind. A shark knocks Zane off of his board and he is surrounded. Rikki happens to be in the area taping sharks for the same contest and drives the sharks away. Lewis ends up with footage of Zane calling for help from sharks in an empty ocean. Zane becomes a laughing stock but Rikki tells him that she believes him.

Later, Mrs. Chatham's houseboat is confiscated as unsafe after it breaks loose and sinks Zane's jet ski. She sneaks off with the boat, damaging Zane's jet ski further. He confronts her, demanding that she pay for the damages. She collapses (she has heart problems if she doesn't take her medicine). Emma and Lewis take her to get medical. Zane heard her say something about her "treasure" and looks for it. The boat's fuel line springs a leak and catches fire and Zane is caught in the sinking boat. Before he loses consciousness he glimpses Emma's tail as she smashes the cabin door open and rescues him. She also recovers the "treasure" which is Mrs. Chatham's locket.

After that Zane is convinced that there is some sort of sea monster in the area and begins searching for it. He finds an old news footage showing a very young Mrs. Chatham being interviewed after saving someone from drowning. There is also a drawing of a fin that matches one Zane made. Zane plans on searching Mrs. Chatham's sunken boat for clues. Emma removes a picture of the three mermaids but Zane catches sight of her and narrows his search to a mermaid instead of a sea monster.

The full moon always affects one or more of the girls. This time it affected Rikki, causing her powers to go out of control. She flees to Mako Island where her presence sets trees on fire. Zane, out looking for a sea monster, sees the flames and finds Rikki distraught. He kisses her and her powers knock them both unconscious and gives Zane what appears to be a sunburn.

Later Rikki attends an investment seminar that Zane's father is conducting. He offers her lunch in the hospitality suite but they end up locked out on the balcony. They discover that they have a lot in common (both live with a divorced father and both use a sharp tongue to keep people at a distance). After that they begin dating and Zane acquires the third locket for her.

Zane's father has plans to develop Mako Island and, in a surprisingly adult response, Rikki files a protest because of the endangered species that the island houses.

The final story arc is a quick one. Lewis takes a job with a marine biologist, Dr. Denman, in order to use advanced equipment to study the girls. The marine biologist turns out to be young, pretty, and amoral. She examines a slide that Lewis left behind and discovers total cellular metamorphosis in the presence of water. This could make her career and she tries to use Lewis to find out more but he refuses.

Later Dr. Denman returns. She been hired by Zane's father to do an environmental impact study of the island - he still plans to develop it. First she discovers a mermaid scale that transforms into skin when dry. Then she gets a picture of the mermaids.

In the season finale, Denman and Zane's father capture the mermaids in the moon pool. The mermaids threaten to use their powers but Denman is holding Lewis hostage elsewhere. Zane discovers what is going on and sides with the mermaids over his father. He frees Lewis and the two of them release the mermaids. He then walks out on his father. Zane's father decides that his son is more important than the mermaids and the two begin a healthier relationship.

Mrs. Chatham reveals that the next full moon will include an eclipse that will remove their powers. They decide that this is the only way they can be safe and, in front of Denman, they transform back into normal girls.

Except that the effect was only temporary and the season ends as it began with the girls transforming unexpectedly as they come into contact with water.

About the only other thing I can add is that, while Zane's story arc continues through most of the season, the first few and the last few are the ones that feature the most special effects and use of mermaids. There are several episodes in the middle that could have come from any teen-comedy, things like Cleo's family thinking that she was dating when she was only working with a sick dolphin at work. The special effects budget was handled similarly. Most of the CGI went into episodes early or late in the season and in several episodes the girls did not spend any time in their tails.

There are several situations that could have gone over the top. Lewis tries waterproofing the girls but they have an allergic reaction. From the title (Love Potion #9) and the premise I was expecting something major. Instead Lewis's spray only made them look like a bad sunburn. They flee the school dance until the effect wears off and are afraid that their dates will not wait.

One final note, this is a kids show and the A-plots are usually light-weight. While Rikki and Zane are bonding on a balcony, the A-plot involves the other two helping Lewis in a fishing contest and having things go wrong when they put a deep-water fish on his hook.

1 comment:

Liz Evans-Gist said...

I don't know why, but this reminded me of 2 things - one's a YA book series that I used to devour that, somewhat surprisingly, if you liked this, you might enjoy. I think the name of the series was Daughters of the Moon?

Also, did you ever catch Veronica Mars when it was on? If not, definitely track it down on Hulu! The first season is brilliant, the second and third not quite as good but still enjoyable. Veronica's the closest I've seen to a female lead that's as strong a character as Buffy.