Mako Mermaids: Season One, Part One (DVD)

Who likes fish chicks?

The 2006 Australian tween series H2O Just Add Water went international a few years back, after North American cable TV airings and, I’m told, becoming a minor sensation on Netflix streaming. An odd combination of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Saved by the Bell, the show was better than flighty stuff like this has any right to be. Moreover, it proved successful enough to spawn this sequel/spinoff/reboot/whatever, Mako Mermaids.

Nixie (Ivy Latimer, Me and My Monsters), Lyla (Lucy Fry, Vampire Academy), and Sirena (Amy Ruffle, Border Protection Guard) are mermaids, living in the ocean near the mysterious Mako Island. Because they’re too young to join the rest of their “pod” for the monthly celebration of the moon, they’re instead tasked with protecting the island, keeping any pesky humans away from it. They shirk their responsibility, though, and human boy Zac (Chai Romruen, Dead Moon Circus) wanders onto the island, where he bumbles his way into the all-powerful moon pool, transforming him into…a merman!

Now, whenever Zac touches water, his legs become a tail. He is also able to control water telekinetically. He reveals his secret to his pal Cam (Dominic Deutscher, Sea Patrol) but not to his long-suffering girlfriend Evie (Gemma Forsythe, Fatal Honeymoon).

As punishment for allowing this to happen, Nixie, Lyla, and Sirena are banished to the surface world, where they must live as humans, legs and all. Except they have the same condition—one drop of water and they’re mermaids again. They have all kinds of water-based super powers, including a magical moon ring, which they plan to use to return Zac to normal, if only they can get close to him.

If you ever sat through H2O Just Add Water, you more or less know what to expect from this series. It’s cheesy but surprisingly smart, in that the creators have taken the time to really think about this fantasy mythology they’ve created. It also has better production value than most shows of this kind, with a lot of location shooting in and around Australia’s Gold Coast. In Mako Mermaids: Season One, Volume One, the new show differentiates itself from the original in a couple of key ways.

The first big addition is that the creators have gone the distance and introduced a teen merman (they must be big School of World fans). Like the girls in the original series, Zac takes his mer-ism in stride. Keeping this secret has its constant challenges, but he’s also thrilled that this has opened up the wonders of the ocean to him, so he decides right from the start that being a merman is a good thing. This requires a little suspension of disbelief from viewers, but it’s a plus in that we don’t have to put up with this character doing the “Poor me, I have superpowers” thing that plagues so many stories like this.

The other new addition to the mythos is that this time, the three girls are not humans transformed into mermaids, but mermaids transformed into humans. They’re experiencing the human world for the first time, which provides a lot of—I apologize for using this phrase in this context—fish-out-of-water storytelling. First there’s slapstick silliness with them learning to walk and cross the street, and then, as they get more acclimated, they have their first experiences dealing with ordinary stuff like money, phones, and so on. They eventually run into someone with knowledge of the mermaid world who takes them in. I understand this is a necessity of the plot—the girls need somewhere to live—but it weakens the “aliens among us” fun of the girls’ situation.

As the troublemaking, mischievous one, Nixie is, of course, the most fun character. Not only does she have the playful, devil-may-care attitude, but she’s the most accepting of human culture. Just as Zac sees his newfound sea life to be a good thing, Nixie is open-minded about the surface world, enjoying all the new sights and experiences. Later in the season, when she’s the one who feels down about not being able to return home, you know the situation is serious, because otherwise she’d be the one cheering up the others.

If Nixie is the fun one, then Lyla is the serious one. Actress Lucy Fry certainly has best icy stare of the cast. At times, she is in danger of being too harsh, barking orders at the other girls and constantly fretting over being stuck on land instead of living in the ocean. This, however, is all setting up the later episodes, in which the girls decide they have to become friends with Zac, getting close to him in order to take away his powers. The stern, unsmiling Lyla is the last person you’d expect to become friends with Zac, so of course that’s what happens. This takes Lyla way outside her comfort zone and it shows she has some heart, offering her a lot of character growth.

Said character growth is lacking in the third of our mermaid trio, Sirena. After watching all these episodes, I find it hard to think of what to say about her. Sirena’s main character trait is she loves music, and the producers keep coming up with excuses for actress Amy Ruffle to sing her heart out. Her songs occasionally have magical effects, a nice callback to one of the weirder episodes of the original series, when a mermaid’s song hypnotized the entire community. A few scenes have Sirena cast as the most homesick one, troubled over being separated from her missing sister. Beyond this, though, Sirena spends most of the series in a supporting role to the other mermaids, stepping into the spotlight only when the creators decide they want a musical number.

Most of the drama, for lack of a better word, comes from everyone keeping secrets from each other. Zac is keeping his secret from everyone, most notably his girlfriend. The mermaids keep their existence secret from the world, but they also know Zac’s secrets and he doesn’t know what they know. All these episodes play the long game, so that with each new episode, viewers will wonder how much longer it’ll be before a big reveal. The big downside to this is what it’s done to the character Evie. As the only one who doesn’t know any of what’s going on, she’s stuck in “nagging girlfriend” mode, with nothing to do except shrewishly pester Zac over and over about what he’s not telling her. It got to the point where I wanted her to learn everybody’s a mermaid/merman just she could finally have something else—anything else—to do.

For the most part, the creators stick to the fantasy mythology they’ve created. A lot of thought has gone into characters living daily life without ever getting wet, and then thinking their way out of those times they do get wet. These episodes will feel redundant for those who watched the original series, but they are what this franchise is all about. The one piece of the mythology that doesn’t quite work is the mermaids’ all-powerful moon ring, which can apparently do anything the plot demands of it. Yet there’s an ambiguous bit of business where the ring can work on Zac only when the girls are close to him while he’s using his powers, all of which is just a convenient excuse for them to interact with him. As episodes progress, we get references to a sealed door on Mako Island and a magical trident, hinting at more fantasy craziness to come.

All this talk about mythology is the interesting stuff. The less interesting aspects of the show are the sitcom-lite antics of any given episode. The teens once again love to hang out at the juice bar, where there is goofball slapstick and romantic comedy flirtations. It’s here where we usually find Zac’s friend Cam doing the comic relief thing. When your show has magical transformations and mythical sea creatures, it’s hard to be invested in the drama of who’s heading up the decorating committee at the juice bar.

The eleventh episode, “I Don’t Believe In Mermaids,” is a good look at the series in microcosm. It begins with Nixie befriending a little kid who’s run away from home, with their budding friendship becoming treacly schmaltz of the worst kind. Then, though, things get interesting as the kid heads out to sea for a mermaid encounter of his own. Here we have magic depicted not with CGI, but in a more mysterious, ethereal, even artsy sort of way. It’s a brilliant moment, and it shows that this cutesy kids’ show is capable of crafting a genuine sense of wonder. Then, however, the episode ends with Sirena singing another one of her songs, and the whole thing devolves back into treacly schmaltz. That’s the series in a nutshell, always ping-ponging back and forth from cheesy and goofy to clever and interesting.

This two-disc set contains the show’s first thirteen episodes. Picture quality is good. This is a bright and colorful show, and the colors really pop on screen. The 2.0 audio is less impressive, but is nonetheless clean. There’s a short behind-the-scenes featurette with actor interviews and a look at how the mermaid costumes were created. Note that this set contains only the first half of the first season, so don’t expect the ongoing plotlines to be resolved in this one. For that, fans have to settle in and wait for Volume Two.

Mermaids are one of the great, long-enduring fantasy images, evoking enchantment under the sea. Our fascination with them never goes away, as evidenced by this series. Mako Mermaids never quite emerges from its hokey tween show trappings, but within those trappings, it remains enjoyable.

The Verdict

Not guilty. Now stop pointing that ring at me.

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