There are just over two weeks left in 2018, and Netflix’s Tidelands is taking a wholehearted shot at being the weirdest new series of the year. An Australian import, the fantasy-crime hybrid is one hell of an odd duck, even by Peak TV standards. The series seems to have been envisioned first and foremost as a crime drama concerned with familial secrets and past traumas, all wrapped up in the unsavory business of drug trafficking. That is until someone came along and said, “You know what? Put a mermaid in it.” What comes of that fateful decision, then, is a series populated with an unreasonably attractive cast that is part Bloodline and part True Blood, with a heaping helping of Freeform’s Siren thrown in for good measure. What’s more surprising is that it’s actually kinda watchable?
To its credit, Tidelands doesn’t play coy with regard to introducing its fantasy element. The series introduces itself with a shot of a mermaid (or siren, because apparently that sounds more legitimate) taking part in some late-night drug running off the coast of Australia. This presents Tidelands with an opportunity to demonstrate its handling of the mythic creatures, treating them like most popular culture treats vampires nowadays: Seductive, obscenely powerful, and with little regard for human life. When the opening sequence turns violent and the siren in question dispatches a man with startling ease, one has to wonder why this secret society of aquatic people haven’t taken over the surface world. There isn’t an answer to that question (maybe they're waiting for Aquaman to hit theaters, too), but mainly because Tidelands has, if not bigger, at least different fish to fry.
After the bloody introduction of one siren, the series premiere abruptly shifts gears to introduce Calliope ‘Cal’ McTeer (Charlotte Best), a 26-year-old woman who's being released from prison after serving a 12-year sentence for arson. Rather than the usual exposition when a character leaves prison, Tidelands puts an emphasis on Cal’s proficiency with violence, as she quickly and easily handles two much larger women in an Eastern Promises-style bathroom brawl. There are definitely more subtle ways to hint that the protagonist is special, but co-creators and writers Stephen M. Irwin and Leigh McGrath aren’t particularly interested in the various nuances of how a young woman might be irrevocably changed by spending her most formative years in prison when they have a group of super strong mermaids to play around with. And, because of that, the show’s a lot more fun to watch.
Tidelands isn’t a show that troubles itself much with attempts to legitimize its ridiculousness. Instead, it leans into those elements wholeheartedly. That much is made evident in the way the cast is comprised entirely of the most attractive people possible. Even Cal’s grungy, misbegotten brother, Augie (Aaron Jakunbenko), looks like he walked off the set of a Calvin Klein photo shoot. And yet, Tideland seems to get that, sure, it’s all terribly superficial, but in that regard, the show also seems to be saying, “It worked for the randy vampires of True Blood, so why not mermaids?”
To its credit, Tidelands has more going for it than pretty people finding they can breath underwater. Cal returns home to find her brother is using his father’s fishing business to run drugs into the country, and she discovers that her estranged, alcoholic mother used the money her late father, Pat (Spartacus’ Dustin Clare), left for his daughter in a trust, to buy, of all things, a bar. Moreover, Augie’s drug-running enterprise is fueled almost entirely by the mysterious Adrielle Cuthbert (Elsa Pataky), a woman who leads a commune of sirens and is traveling the globe collecting pieces of a strange artifact for some unknown purpose.
The combination of murder, mystery, and mermaids is about as unlikely a combo as you’re going to get on television, and somehow it works enough to make Tidelands watchable, if not entirely captivating. There’s a lot of room for some world building to be done with regard to the half-siren, half-human members of Adrielle’s little commune, and the question of Cal's connection to them makes for an intriguing enough mystery. Add in the family drama, unanswered questions about the death of Cal and Augie’s father, and a potential uprising from within Adrielle’s group and Tidelands is another unexpected addition to the Netflix catalog that’s all too easy to binge.
The first few episodes make it clear that Tidelands is wafer thin in terms of substance; there are hints of childhood trauma, economic anxiety, and the difficulties of living in the margins of society, but the series really only pays lip service to these ideas. This is popcorn entertainment through and through, the kind that can take a simple crime story to some unabashedly trashy places in the blink of an eye, and that’s before it starts splashing around in the waters of a pretty silly fantasy. Still, the show is competent enough, as both a crime drama and a CW-level supernatural story to warrant a watch.
Tidelands will stream on Netflix on Friday, December 14, 2018.