On Siren, The Little Mermaid Grows Up & Fights Back

Certain shows seem like obvious things to make. A spin-off about black-ish’s most effortlessly cool kid? Yeah, of course. A quirky comedy about two L.A. weirdos stumbling their way towards adulthood? What a classic set-up. But, Freeform’s newest upcoming series, the fantasy drama Siren, is a gamble. It’s not an adaptation of some beloved YA novel or a remake of a 1980s schlockfest, made edgy and dark for the modern day. No, the unapologetically original Siren tells the story of what happens when a mermaid (Eline Powell) makes it to land and is more enamored with the stray self-defense murder than figuring out what a dinglehopper is.
I told you, it’s a gamble. But, thanks to the inventiveness of Siren, debuting with a two-hour series premiere on Thursday, March 29, the whole endeavor pays off.
Freeform shows usually begin with bright, airy light and maybe a fun pop song humming in the background. That’s certainly how grown-ish and The Bold Type kick off. Siren is not one of those shows. Instead, the series opens on a dark, stormy fishing boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Soon enough the vessel is in chaos thanks to an unknown and very dangerous-seeming creature, a screaming guy who was stabbed by that unknown creature, the sounds of an ethereal siren song (get it?!), and gun-toting paramilitary soldiers rappelling from the sky. Immediately, this is a mermaid show with a government conspiracy bent — Siren doesn’t wait to get to the good stuff.
This tendency to dabble in endless genres is what makes the first episodes of Siren so fun. While the pilot opens in a way that would look comfortable in a Bourne thriller, it soon switches gears to small town family drama thanks to the introduction of both the breezy seaside burg of Bristol Cove and Ben Pownall (Alex Roe), our leading man and son of Bristol Cove’s founding family. As with any young adult drama, the Pownalls are a family with secrets, and Ben is far more interested in saving the oceans and sipping beers with his fishing buddies than getting trapped in that kind of ancestral drama.
But, Siren isn’t This Is Us or Gilmore Girls, so the rest of the pilot, and much of the series, takes on the vibe of alternate universe Jaws. Because in this story, the predator lurking beneath the waves makes it to land to terrorize this small town (and also make lasting friendships with its inhabitants). As you’ve guessed, the killing machine we’re talking about is the mermaid who inspires Siren’s title, who chooses the name Ryn for herself. In an effort to prove to us just how fearsome Ryn actually is, we eventually see the floating head of the massive sea predator she took down and subsequently devoured.
If that doesn’t convince you this isn’t Ariel’s mermaid, please know Siren’s version of the mythological being looks like a nightmare creature with a tail — teeth and all.
Although Ryn is introduced as the most dangerous creature in Bristol Cove, Siren lives and dies by proving its heroine is not merely a murderer. There are layers to Ryn, and star Elaine Powell, who previously appeared in two episodes of Game Of Thrones, manages to carefully reveal each and every one with barely a word. Remember, Ryn did just drag herself out of the sea roughly 20 minutes ago due to narratively-important, but spoiler-y, reasons.
Instead, the British actress uses her fearsome mermaid contacts and natural-born ethereal bone structure to bring such a complicated character to life. Throughout the first three episodes made available to critics, Powell shows Ryn to be equal parts alien on a new planet, fearless desperado, and desperate family member in search of a lost loved one. Not to spoil the show, but that third identity soon becomes the heart of the series, especially as Ryn and Ben inevitably team up to track down that mystery individual.
Amid Ryn’s many sides, the one viewers will most likely be buzzing about is that one that helps her serve as an outlet for female rage. When I first heard about Siren nearly a full year ago, a single moment struck me: when Ryn slits the throat of a flannel-wearing would-be creep and tosses him through a window. With just a few frames of a sneak peek, the Freeform show suggested this was series prepared to drop all the infantilism of The Little Mermaid, where the heroine self mutilates for love, and the objectification of mermaid lore in favor of a badass woman who was more than ready to defend herself. The full version of that scene improves upon the preview teaser, amping up the tension and catharsis of Ryn’s immediate, bloody revenge. The moment is made all the more thrilling in a world where it felt like a new real-life sexual predator was outed every day for a full season.
As with most new shows, the real weakness of Siren is just how little the supporting cast gets to do in its first hours. While Ben starts digging into his family’s past and Ryn does, well, basically everything, people like Ben’s girlfriend Maddie Bishop (Fola Evans-Akingbola) and best friend Xander McClure (Ian Verdun) merely feel like they’re along for the ride. They act supportive when necessary, complain when the narrative calls for it, and get flung against walls when Ryn's supernatural aggression demands it.
Thankfully for them, the fantasy drama has 10 episodes to turn all of that around. And if Siren can create someone with as many facets as Ryn in 42 minutes or less, it can certainly give Maddie her own adventure.
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