We sent National Treasure Michael Phelps into the water to race sharks, and not only did he lose but he also did not get eaten. Michael Phelps, for the first time, has completely disappointed America.
In what may be the crowning achievement in relentlessly promoted stunt TV programming, Discovery aired the cornerstone of this year’s Shark Week suite, Phelps vs. Shark: The Battle For Ocean Supremacy, in which the living legend, as its title suggests, would race a shark.
Why, you ask? An hour later, we’re still asking.
Did Phelps have swimming with sharks on his bucket list? Was he in it for the free vacation to South Africa? Did he just finish binging 30 Rock on Netflix and, inspired by Tracy Jordan, vow to live every week like it’s Shark Week?
The special was a triumph of self-serious bombast and extreme nothingness—a new bar for stunt programming, and a next-level indictment of just how much interest Americans have in famous people getting terrorized by sharks.
The challenge of drumming up enthusiasm for your cable programming, even for an event that was at one point as much of zeitgeist-ruler as Shark Week, is a tough one—as tough, say, as being a human and thinking you can swim faster than a damn shark. Every network is in an arms race to throw the biggest party to attract the most viewers.
Anyone behind the Phelps circus act must be pleased with the spate of exclamatory pre-air press, whether of the OMG, WTF, LOL, or ugh variety.
That press centered on one big, central question: how in the hell are they going to do this? Surely, they’re not going to somehow finagle swimming lanes in the middle of the freaking ocean and train a shark to swim politely in a straight line against Phelps. That shark, friends, would eat our dear aquatic champion—making for a grisly, though admittedly noteworthy, conclusion to the telecast.
As suspected, the actual “race” was a big ol' bummer. The idea was that, using new swimming equipment to make him swim faster, Phelps would swim 100 meters and experts would time him. Cutting edge technology would also be used to estimate how fast a white shark really swims, and then the times would be compared. Phelps never raced a shark. The entire special, basically, was a SAT math problem.
That means that the true entertainment was to be mined by the hilarious grandeur with which they talked about this race that never actually happened.
“Can the greatest Olympian of our time outswim the King of the Ocean?” some announcer man with a booming announcer voice asks, telling viewers they are about to “dissect the question of whether a human stands a chance against a shark in a race.” It is a question that, as it happens, can be answered in a 30-second Google search, not an hour-long special. But here we are.
To give us an idea of the challenge at hand, the scientists/technicians/producers/nerds involved in the charade do some clever CGI of one of Phelps’s world record-setting races, putting an animated shark in one of the pool lanes to show just how much faster the animal is than the swimmer: a lot faster.
But there is still 45 minutes of TV to produce, and thus we hit the open waters to use the best technology yet to measure the speed of a shark. There are challenges, of course. It turns out that sharks, much like Olympic swimmers after a bong hit or two, don’t swim in straight lines, making it hard to gauge their speeds.
Still, these nerds had some tricks up their sleeves. I must admit it was hard to follow exactly what they were doing, but it involved: a drone, a fishing line, and a wackadoo on some water bicycle slightly fancier than the one I rode with my aunt in Myrtle Beach circa 1998. But it was a success! They figured out the speed, and it was very fast.
After a careful examination of every inch of Phelps’s body while he is wearing a speedo—the highlight of the special—they conclude that in order for him to beat the shark they will just have to turn him into a mermaid. They test him out against a CGI hammerhead shark and a CGI reef shark. The CGI white shark is saved for the grand finale.
For each of these races, they fly him to a different body of water around the world, which to you might seem excessive but to me makes perfect sense. Like Michael Phelps, I, too, wait until I am in new continents to exercise.
The prospects are bleak. Phelps has to swim the 100 meters in less than 36.1 seconds in order to beat the great white. They put him in a wetsuit that emulates shark skin in order to help him do it, which seems silly but the suit is tight enough to give us a good glimpse of his own hammerhead, so… we’re here for it.
“I’m going to have to swim and act like a shark,” Phelps says, instilling the fear of god into viewers that this is about to turn into the beginners’ improv class from hell.
The main event takes place in a South African harbor, where a series of boats creates a lane for Phelps to follow—and, sure, the CGI shark, too. (Riddle me this: why is every shark boat some 50-year-old dilapidated rowboat smaller than most Americans’ sectional couches. Have we not all seen Jaws? Bigger boats, fools!)
In the end, Phelps did not beat the cartoon shark, losing by just two seconds to the estimated time. He wouldn’t stop complaining about how cold the water was and how it threw him off, which, excuses, Phelps.
Listen, we’re being snarky. Obviously this was a clever, educational, and enlightening spotlight for new technology being used to learn more and maybe even preserve sharks and other marine life. There was beautiful, crazy hi-def footage of the sharks in water that was intense and awe-inspiring—and all of that, at least in today’s day and age, needs to be disguised in the utter ridiculousness of a farcical race against an Olympian in order to get viewers to watch and be invested.
And if that worked for you, here’s some good news: Phelps isn’t done with the sharks yet. He’ll next be starring in Shark School with Michael Phelps, a decidedly less titillating title premise, which debuts next week—should you want to learn more about these magnificent beasts and continue your manufactured and illogical curiosity over whether they will eat him.