I prefer mermaid with some tartar sauce and a slice of lemon.
Filmed in Australia, H20 Just Add Water eventually made its way across the ocean to air on Nickelodeon in the U.S. On the surface, it’s a girly show about mermaids. The question is, is there anything more below the surface?
Thanks to some teenage mischief run amok, Cleo (Phoebe Tonkin), Emma (Claire Holt), and Rikki (Cariba Heine) end up out in the ocean and stranded on the uninhabited Mako Island. They end up inside a cave submerged in a natural moon pool (Just go with me on this), and when the full moon hits them, they become transformed into mermaids.
When on land, the three are normal girls, but all it takes is one drop of water to hit them and their legs magically become tails (and they magically don TV censor-friendly bikini tops). Additionally, each girl has her own super powers—Cleo can control water telekinetically, Emma can freeze it with a thought, and Rikki can mentally bring it a boil. Keeping this secret complicates life considerably, but the girls aren’t going to let it get them down. With the help of goofball wannabe-scientist friend Lewis (Angus McLaren), they set out to find out how and why this is possible.
Elsewhere, bullying rich boy Zane (Burgess Abernathy) catches a quick glimpse of one of the girls while underwater. Now he’s out to prove mermaids exist, and he won’t let anyone stop him.
Here we have a teen fantasy show that doesn’t reach the sophistication or wit of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but is not quite as campy or cheeseball as Saved by the Bell. It’s somewhere smack dab right in between the two. It takes the fantasy/sci-fi aspects of the story refreshingly serious, and yet we do have to sit through a lot of “teen lite” antics such as hanging out at the juice bar or having a crush on the guy at the juice bar, or heading up a decorating committee…at the juice bar. (Side note: Have teenagers anywhere other than on TV shows ever hung out at a juice bar? Why can’t it just be a pizza and/or burger place?)
The show is at its best when exploring this fantasy world its set up. What’s interesting is that it takes time to establish its own rules, and then strictly follows them. Instead of info-dumping everything in a far-too-dense pilot episode, various aspects of what it’s like to be a mermaid are doled out slowly over the first few episodes. The writers are playing the long game, setting things up piece by piece, drawing all the concepts and plot threads together by the end. It’s not a slow-paced show, but it’s a deliberate pace, which allows a lot of breathing room. This means we get see the girls accidentally getting wet while doing household chores, experiment with their new powers, and there’s even an entire episode showing the lengths they go to keep their secret on a rainy afternoon.
One impressive thing about the show is that the girls don’t spend all their time moping about what’s happened to them. While spontaneously growing tails whenever they touch water has its inconveniences, the girls are instead given agency over their fate, deciding early on that being a mermaid can also be a good thing. This means we have to sit through a lot of montages of them swimming around underwater, but, hey, they are mermaids. On the plus side, it means the show avoids the “poor me, I have superpowers” syndrome that afflicts a lot of shows like this.
The tone of any given episode varies depending on what’s happening. Sometimes, the girls are doing the superhero thing, using their powers to protect the ocean, rescue endangered sea life, put a stop to poachers, etc. Other episodes are more comedy-focused, with semi-Saved by the Bell antics, fluffy romances, and dorky slapstick. Again, the writers are playing the long game across the whole season, so it’s a matter of balance, as serious episodes and silly episodes are spaced throughout the season so that it never feels inconsistent.
Cleo is very much the heart of the show. It takes her the longest to come around to the idea that being a mermaid can be a good thing, but that means she’s the one who’s the most emotionally vulnerable. We spend more time with her family than with the other girls’ families, and her relationships with both her father and her younger sister are ongoing threads throughout the season. The little sister might be a little too grating for some viewers, but she provides a lot of complications for the girls’ adventures. Cleo and Lewis also take the first tentative steps toward the ol’ teenage romance thing, and this too is played out over several episodes.
Emma is the hardest of the three girls to figure out. Personality-wise, she’s the overachiever. She was formerly a star on her school’s swimming team, and we see her overachieving in other aspects of her life, such as grades, party planning, juice bar decorating committees, etc. Becoming a mermaid kills her role on the swim team, but at the same time she develops a whole new sense of freedom as she is able to explore the entirety of the ocean. Her overall arc includes learning not to be such a control freak, and just letting go of all of life’s little stresses.
That brings us to Rikki, who of course is the tough girl. When the other two fuss over clothes or boys, Rikki is right there to take the wind from their sails with a well-timed wisecrack. It’s important for a show like this to have someone who both diffuses the seriousness as well as points out the various absurdities of the premise, as the one who is sometimes saying what the audience is thinking. She’s also the short-tempered one, and her power of bringing water to a boil is an obvious metaphor for her fiery, easily-provoked anger.
Lewis is often set up as comic relief, but he’s more sidekick than he is clown, the one the girls can rely on to keep their secret and help them out when out when the need arises—which is often. Zane starts out as the typical bully, but he gets more and well-rounded and more humanized as the season progresses. First, it’s revealed that he has a strained relationship with his father, going far to explain his aggression. Then, Zane and Rikki get to know each other better behind the others’ backs. This not only adds to the tension in the ongoing arc, but also makes him a more complex character than just “the bully.”
Cleo almost always wears purple, Emma almost always wears blue, and Rikki almost always wears red. Did these three graduate from the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers school of fashion?
Filmed in and around Australia’s Gold Coast, with locations including Sea World, H20 Just Add Water has production value to spare, which helps make this a cut above other kids’ shows. All the bright colors shine on DVD, not quite as stunning as the best discs on the market, but clean and vivid nonetheless. Sound is good as well, with clear dialogue and music. For extras, there is a short featurette on the making of the show, and a “telemovie,” that bafflingly edits the entire season down to a single 90-minute feature.
Yes, H20 Just Add Water is a girly bubblegum pop mermaid show, but it’s a well-made, watchable girly bubblegum pop mermaid show. As low-calorie as it is, it creates a solid fantasy mythology and never forgets the standards of plot and character development.