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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Why we need Sharknado

Campy TV movie works as a hilarious change of pace for weary binge-viewers

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POSTMEDIA STEVE SIMON Enlarge Image

OK, you don't want to overthink a film in which sharks are sucked up into twisters and then dumped over L.A. Sharknado, a Syfy movie that aired in Canada on Space, became an instant hit because it involves sharks and tornadoes and chainsaws.

But its screwy success might also be down to prestige-television fatigue. We're living in the golden age of complex, challenging TV. A lot of television now has novelistic story arcs, layered character development and intricate thematic structures. It requires acute, intelligent viewing and raises difficult moral questions.

What a relief, then, to fall, at least temporarily, into the genial idiocy of Sharknado, a made-for-TV no-budgeter that makes Snakes on a Plane look smooth and smart. Combining a rudimentary creature-feature story with an extreme-weather subplot to goofy/gory effect, Sharknado features awful writing, atrocious effects and chimp-assisted editing. As a bonus, we have faded '90s teen stars Ian Ziering and Tara Reid playing grownups.

For audiences recovering from a dark season of Mad Men or bracing for the final episodes of Breaking Bad or facing down the grim and rigorous demands of The Fall, you can see why Sharknado would be tempting. Sure, the movie is about flying sharks getting cut in half with chainsaws, but it's also about the uncomplicated old-school pleasures of bad summer TV. For instance:

SHARKNADO IS SIMPLE

Consider the movie's tagline: "Shark plus tornado equals Sharknado. Enough said."

Exactly. Can you imagine summing up Mad Men that way? How about, Don Draper plus Dante's Inferno plus tragic whorehouse childhood plus the unattainable nature of happiness equals... what, exactly? After six seasons we still don't know.

IT'S INTERACTIVE

My house has a strict no-talking rule during prestige viewing, so as not to miss the muted nuance of the dialogue or the hushed suspense of the significant silences.

Sharknado is too sublimely silly for hate-watching, but it's made for laughing, scoffing and yelling-at-the-TV one-liners. You make your own entertainment in the old-timey Mystery Science Theater 3000 way, where the comic commentary is better than the actual show. (One might observe, for example, that exploding gas canisters are all very well, but the dangers of dry-land sharks can generally be overcome with a bit of brisk walking.)

Sharknado's boundless opportunities for humour led to a social media feeding frenzy. Everybody was in on it, from Patton Oswalt to Mia Farrow to Downton Abbey's Dowager Countess. ("America: The Empire gave you tea, civilisation and the English language. And you responded with #Sharknado.")

The movie also yielded meme-worthy GIFs, some wildly sharky but some just enjoying Tara Reid's painstaking attempts to assemble her facial features into an expression of terror.

AN ANTIHERO-FREE ZONE

Ah, the "difficult men" of prestige TV, with their fighting, drinking, womanizing antihero ways. Not only are we expected to fish through layers of complexity for their wounded souls, we are also forced to examine our own complicity. (Why do we want to hang out with the murderous Tony Soprano or the destructive Walter White?)

No antiheroes here. Sharknado's got old-fashioned hero-heroes. Main character Fin (get it? get it?) may be played by a D-list 90210 actor, but he's a stand-up guy. You know what Fin's only fault is, according to his ex-wife? He wants to help people too much.

BECAUSE SHARKS

I've seen the eco-documentary Sharkwater, and I know that the real mindless predators in the human-shark relationship are the humans. I also know that I am more likely to be dispatched by a falling vending machine than a shark.

But the idea of the killer shark still makes for great entertainment. Far from being fragile and endangered, Sharknado's hardy sharks can survive hours spinning in the air above Los Angeles. Falling 200 metres from the sky and landing on some non-speaking extra just gives them an appetite.

At a time when even Discovery Channel's super-chompy Shark Week has developed a gloss of ecological concern, Sharknado takes us back to the innocent era of Jaws, when sharks were just beach-clearing bad guys. (Sharknado politely reveals its debt to that 1975 classic with the weirdest Robert Shaw reference you will ever see.)

SWEET, SWEET EXCESS

Prestige TV can be enigmatic, indirect and subtle to the point of opacity. A recent online recap of The Killing was headlined, "Is Anything Even Happening?"

No need to ask that in Sharknado. Sharks are happening, even in a living room in Beverly Hills. And forget restraint. If one shark is scary, then a thousand sharks are a thousand times scarier, at least according to the Sharknado scribes. Scripter Thunder Levin -- and yes, that's his real name -- says when producers worried something might be over-the-top, "I'd just say 'It's called Sharknado!' and that pretty much was the end of it."

We may endlessly dissect the ambiguous shadings of prestige television, but there's no need to debate Sharknado. Levin's handy rejoinder would soon finish off any discussion of this epically bad but weirdly adorable flick. And that's kind of a relief.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 20, 2013 ??65524

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