There’s a genre of unscripted programming that essentially introduces the viewer to small groups of people with unorthodox interests and then subtly or not-so-subtly goofs on them, a la Netflix’s “Tiger King.” “MerPeople,” a four-part docuseries seemingly timed to draft off a certain Disney movie, appears to fit that niche, but as executed isn’t weird enough to hold water.
Instead, director Cynthia Wade has produced a too-earnest, all-over-the-place look at the eccentric souls who have chosen playing mermaids as a vocation or avocation, without spending much time on the “why” of that, as opposed to the sheer logistics. Morgana Alba, the leader of a group of professional mermaids, explains that those drawn to the practice are “rebels and renegades and runaways,” which doesn’t really accomplish enough on the former score.
In the course of those travels, the Netflix production explores the lives of older mermaids who once performed at Weeki Wachee Springs, the home of an historic show in Florida; and the current struggles of younger entertainers, who devote considerable time and money to developing a skill that doesn’t offer much in the way of compensation or job security, booking events ranging from corporate poolside gigs to children’s parties.
Beyond the dangers involved (“No dead mermaids” is Alba’s safety mantra), there are some other risks associated with mermaiding, including what the performers refer to as “merverts” – that is, men who sexually harass them.
The series concludes with an episode that frankly could have provided the backbone of the show while skipping most of the preliminaries: A cruise ship featuring a sort-of mermaid pageant, assembling a group that competes before crowning a king and queen.
It’s easy enough to see why “MerPeople” sold to Netflix, as well as the cynical thinking that went into premiering it the same week that Disney is out spending millions promoting its “The Little Mermaid” live-action remake, allowing the service to latch onto its tail.
As these kind of programming oddities go, though, this docuseries doesn’t work either as train-wreck TV or an anthropological dive into what motivates people to engage in this activity. Based on that and the three-hour viewing commitment, there’s just not enough here to merit making “MerPeople” part of your world.
“MerPeople” premieres May 23 on Netflix.