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Catch the Shark Week spirit! Plus: Is a "Project Runway" designer more likely to attack if you thrash about, or play dead?

Published July 27, 2008 12:00PM (EDT)

Sharks are exciting and full of promise, but that only goes part of the way toward explaining why Shark Week always brings joy to the hearts of so many. Yes, sharks are fascinating to watch, cartoonish and beautiful, graceful and horrifying, magnificent and intimidating and nonchalant. Either because we don't have to elbow past them in the grocery store or because we try very hard not to think of them during the other 51 weeks of the year, sharks seem exotic, and fixating on them feels almost self-indulgent.

Shark Week, then, is more than just a week to look at sharks. Maybe it started as such 21 years ago, when the Discovery Channel, like the awkward kid who brings his dad's python to school for a momentary glimpse of popularity, first shouted "Hey everybody! Look over here! Sharks!" But since then, Shark Week has evolved into a high concept, divorced from its original intention. Shark Week doesn't just mean, "Let's look at scary, fascinating sharks together! Let's watch them circle menacingly and chomp on bloody fish! Let's hear about the most gruesome shark attacks and worry about the next time we dip a toe in the water!"

No, Shark Week also urges us to celebrate something arbitrary, something divorced from tradition or religion or national significance. The spirit of Shark Week reminds us that we get to choose what matters to us, and we can make today Taco Day or make this Nap Week, or expand Nap Week into the Year of Avoiding Real Work. We can celebrate frogs or expensive shoes or good friends or cheap beer or big hair by giving each its very own holiday, and if we choose to sit on the couch and eat snacks and watch sharks on TV for a full week, that's a perfectly legitimate choice, too.

The founders of Shark Week recognize how empty and directionless our lives can be. They know how we drift along, searching for some worthwhile distraction. They know how we're aching for something to rally us forward, like Miley Cyrus fans who need a cheery beacon through the bewildering hinterlands of puberty. And unlike campaign coverage, Emmy nominations, Olympic trials or the Tour de France, Shark Week doesn't require cogitation or analysis. We're tired of thinking. We don't want to worry about the impending recession. We don't care about Angelina Jolie's twins ... or her two brand-new babies, for that matter. We just want to watch sharks, damn it!

Happy Shark Week, America!

Good chums
Naturally most of the programs featured during Shark Week (July 27-Aug. 2 on Discovery) are one part Jacques Cousteau, two parts "Jackass." "Surviving Sharks" (premieres 9 p.m. EDT Monday) fits the bill perfectly. Under the auspices of such high-minded goals as studying "the interactions between humans and sharks" and "analyzing a shark's bite," host Les Stroud of "Survivorman" does exactly what boats full of rubbernecking tourists do every year: He throws a bunch of chum in the water and waits for some big-ass sharks to show up and scare the bejesus out of everyone.

Thus does Stroud place a "chumsicle" (trash-can-shaped popsicle of frozen chum) into the water suspended by a rope, ostensibly so that he can determine whether reef sharks (in the Caribbean) and great white sharks (in South Africa) feed more frenetically during the day or at night. Stroud's methods are less than scientific, of course. He simply observes the sharks in both cases, and then concludes that sharks are "opportunists" that are happy to feed at any hour. Man, Shark Week is so educational! Pass the nachos, will ya?

Next, in the interest of "analyzing" the bite of the great white shark, Stroud throws a big hunk of fish into the water, and then films a great white chomping on it. Here's his analysis: "The snout lifts! The jaw drops! The teeth protrude! And the bait is engulfed in its massive jaws!" He continues breathlessly, "Researchers have found that the great white follows these four steps in virtually every bite, and it all happens in less than one second!" "Well, ain't that a corker!" we gasp, as our snouts lift, our jaws drop, our teeth protrude and another nacho is engulfed in our hungry jaws. In another highly unscientific experiment, Stroud straps a piece of meat to some chain mail to see if it'll protect against a great white bite. (Something tells me he already knows the answer to this one.) Yes, the snout lifts and the jaw drops, and then, to the delight of Shark Week watchers everywhere, the great white shakes its head back and forth like a dog playing tug o' war with a rope toy. Stroud's face lights up and you just know he's thinking, "If only we made a little guy wear that chain mail suit, this footage would be sooo much more dramatic!" A few seconds later, the shark chomps the bait in two and swims away, the meat and half of the chain mail in his gullet.

Time for another experiment! "You sense that you're being stalked by a tiger shark. Do you play dead, or do you swim for the boat?" Stroud uses his "friend" Bionic Bob, a motorized dummy, to see how a tiger shark responds to different motions. When Bionic Bob swims (Very slowly. Poor Bob!) toward the boat, the tiger shark ignores him for 45 minutes. Come on, this is disappointing! Why didn't they strap a pork shoulder to Bionic Bob's ass?

But then, when Bionic Bob ... well, bobs in the water, lifelessly, the tiger shark swims over and rips Bionic Bob's pants off, revealing his bionic buttocks. Stroud, ever the thoughtful scientist, yells and laughs from the safety of his nearby boat. Soon, the tiger shark is chomping on Bionic Bob's jugular, ripping off both his arms while ominous music plays. Stroud's voice-over somehow manages to inform us, without giggling, that "the injuries Bob has sustained are devastating!"

OK, let's just be honest. Shark Week is for stoners ... or the stoned at heart.

No wonder Discovery's "MythBusters" (9 p.m. Wednesdays) are invited to the party. "Mythbusters" is also for stoners -- albeit the science-oriented, slightly geeky kind who smoke big bong hits and then figure out how to rig together a human-propelling slingshot using only bungee cords and duct tape. The MythBuster team of cheerful miscreants typically take on myths like "Is a bird in the hand really worth two in the bush?" or "Do witches actually float?"

OK, hold on a minute. I just looked on the "MythBusters" Web site's episode guide for a few examples, and guess what I found?

"Episode 35: Border Slingshot: Is it feasible to fly over the frontier? In this episode, Adam and Jamie take on the myth that illegal immigrants are firing themselves 200 yards across the border and into the United States with a slingshot so accurate, it can land the human projectiles safely on a carefully placed mattress. Border patrols are reportedly baffled -- can the MythBusters' handbuilt human-sized slingshot solve the puzzle?"

Sweet Jesus, and I thought that my human-propelling slingshot joke was the ultimate too-absurd-and-stonery-to-be-true example! Let this be a lesson to you, kids: The stonery-ness of stoners always lives up to its mythic status.

Yes, Shark Week and "MythBusters" are birds of a feather, so much so that the "MythBusters: Shark Special" (9 p.m. Sunday on Discovery) takes on some of the same shark myths that Les Stroud does in his segment. It begins by testing the notion that thrashing around will get you attacked more quickly than playing dead (Shouldn't they just ask Bionic Bob?). MythBuster Grant Imahara goes in the water and plays dead, while MythBuster Tory Belleci gets in and thrashes around and yells. The sharks gather around Tory, since they're attracted to "panicky, erratic movement because they associate those cues with injured fish." I guess this means that swimming slowly to the boat is OK, but thrashing or yelling or splashing wildly is a very bad idea.

The MythBusters also build an enormous animatronic shark, fitting it with steel teeth and snapping jaws, just to test the notion that a victim could punch a shark in the eyes to stop an attack. The whole exercise feels a little silly and arbitrary, the sort of self-indulgent, digressive and inconclusive project that only a real science geek could love. As hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman gush and giggle through their big experiment, adding jagged edges to their steel teeth and perfecting their generator-powered snapping jaw, it's sort of like watching kids concoct elaborate safety equipment for their raw eggs in physics class: "With my dual-suspension rubber-band system providing a check for the integrity of this Styrofoam core, I'm fairly confident the egg will remain intact after its two-story drop!"

And while this spirit of arbitrary musing is right in line with the spirit of Shark Week itself, I must admit that the "MythBusters: Shark Special," which is two hours long, really does drag on and on. If you're fully committed to riding that shark wherever it takes you, I'd suggest filling the dull moments like I did, by reading about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the shark attacks that occurred in its wake, or by reading about how common fatal shark attacks are (I like this handy chart, which shows that fatal attacks are rare indeed), or by reading about the fatal great white shark attack in San Diego earlier this year. Sharks know how to keep us on edge, even if TV producers don't.

Runway skids
And while we're tackling long-standing and rather arbitrary traditions, it's time to address the fifth season of "Project Runway" (9 p.m. Wednesdays on Bravo), which is circling the warm waters of summer television and devouring all of the inferior programming in its path.

But who are the big, predatory fish in this school of whimpering, insecure nail-biters? Personally, I fear Suede, the 37-year-old designer from Ohio who won last week's cocktail dress challenge, the way I'd fear anyone who refers to himself repeatedly in the third person. "It is going to be a long night for Suede." "Suede's a bisexual Sagittarius and loves long walks on the beach!"

But does Suede make clothes out of suede a lot, and is that how he chose his name? If so, why doesn't rocker-fashion-guru Stella rename herself "Leather"? Stella is frustrated by this challenge, you see, because the models were charged with buying the fabric for the dresses, and her model didn't buy her fabric of choice. "I just want to stick to my leather," she tells anyone who'll listen. "I want to just sew leather? Burn it up, dye it up, grommet it, pyramid it, stud it, spike it. I want to make my leather!"

Soon, Blayne, who until this point appeared nothing more than a gap-toothed tanorexic, starts making fun of Stella in the next room. "My husband's leather! All my kids came out of me leather!"

Stella responds, in her deadpan Queens accent, "Remove that piece of leather from the center of your teeth, there." It looks like the fight is on, but Blayne plays dead, giving Stella a hug while cooing, "Oh, I love your leather face!"

At least these designers are starting to understand that we care less about their freaky dresses than we do about their ability to verbally spar, laugh, insult each other, make up and cry big salty tears over the unforgiving nature of this or that fabric.

And look, here comes Natalie Portman as guest judge, damning with faint praise! "It fit well," she says brattily of Stella's dress, which looks like something that should be made of leather. But then, when it comes to Bettie Page look-alike Kenley, Portman can't stop gushing ... about how cool and pretty she is. "She had such a great vibe, it's like some, like, broad out of the '40s, like, came up and you know ..." Then, maybe in reaction to some amused but icy looks from those predatory know-it-all judges Michael Kors and Nina Garcia, she starts to trail off. "... Which I think is a lot of what being a designer is, you have to have a personality, and ..." Wow. Sometimes I'd really love to see the uncut, unedited version of the judges' discussions.

Finally the judges are left trying to decide whether to dismiss Leanne or Wesley, whose models both chose the exact same ugly brown satin for their dresses. Since it's tough to tell the difference between Wesley's ill-fitting, awkward brown satin minidress and Leanne's overly adorned, Peter Pan brown satin minidress, the judges must've left it up to Portman, who perhaps said of Wesley's look -- sports jacket, short shorts, knobby knees and red shoes -- "It's like some, like, schoolboy out of the '80s, like, came up and you know ..."

So we say goodbye to Wesley. Those "Project Runway" judges can be so arbitrary and cruel! But at least now blood is in the water, which means that some of these shy little nail nibblers are going to turn into ravenous monsters before our eyes. Let the feeding frenzy begin!

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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