Last week, Discovery Channel’s annual Violence-in-the-Natural-World-a-Palooza, also known as Shark Week, made it into mainstream news coverage. And not because scientists discovered that Greenland sharks are the longest-living vertebrates with lifespans of up to 400 years. Not because of a recent book uncovering the history of a secret U.S. Navy project that tried to train sharks to deliver bombs. Never mind that people keep finding two-headed sharks all over the world and no one knows why. Nope. Everyone got riled up because Discovery (sort of) said that 23-time gold medal Olympian Michael Phelps would (maybe) race against a Great White Shark. And because he (mostly) didn’t.
In the episode “Phelps vs. Shark: Great Gold vs. Great White,” Phelps hangs out in a boat with some scientists as they record a Great White’s swimming speed. Then, wearing a bunch of specially designed gear, he races in the ocean against… a superimposed, CGI shark. Spoiler alert: Phelps loses by two seconds. Theoretically. You know – against an imaginary shark. A shark made of pixels and dreams.
The ratings, though: very real. Discovery reported that their viewership hit new records, with over 15 million people tuning in to watch Michael Phelps lose to a fake-news fish.
To be fair, both the network and Phelps argue that they made it clear in all the promo for the episode that the record-setting swimmer wouldn’t be in the water with an actual, physical shark. And for the most part, that argument checks out – even if the initial promo from Discovery claimed, “The world’s most decorated athlete takes on the ocean’s most efficient predator: Phelps V Shark – the race is on!” Which, sure, if you’re not thinking carefully about the raging liability issues, might lead you to believe that Nat-Geo-With-More-Shouting would put a Great White Man in a pool with a literal monster.
But come on, y’all. We are now solidly in Act Two (Rising Action) of the Post-Truth Apocalypse. This is no time for uncritical skimming. We are living under a president who made 492 false or misleading claims during his first 100 days in office. Our Commander in Chief retweeted a video of himself punching CNN in the superimposed face and once claimed that Barack Obama literally founded ISIS. The way we’re running through Communications Directors, you’d think all their last names were Stark. Y’all. Y’ALL. We have got to start reading between the headlines. Truth is weird these days. The resistance can not be caught out here unquestioningly marveling at corporate claims about the Herculean feats of cis straight white men.
Highest Stock Market EVER, best economic numbers in years, unemployment lowest in 17 years, wages raising, border secure, S.C.: No WH chaos!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 31, 2017
So just to set the record straight, no, Michael Phelps did not race a shark. (Also, since we’ve all apparently got vacation passes to Gullible-Gullible Island, maybe this is a good time to reiterate that climate change is not a hoax invented by China, and that it is not a felony to “leak” a financial disclosure form, the first clue being that it has “disclosure,” i.e., a fancy word for “tell somebody about it” in the name of the form.)
Let’s be clear. It is a really good thing that Michael Phelps went head-to-head with Bruce from Finding Nemo instead of an actual Great White Shark. A gentle reminder that this is an animal with five rows of serrated teeth and a bite force ten times stronger than a lion.
Michael Phelps has a lot of medals, but last time I checked, he can’t smell blood from three miles away or use electromagnetic fields to track down prey. Pretty sure he doesn’t normally throw back 200-pound fur seals like they’re goddamn gummy vitamins.
That shark would have gone Kobayashi on Michael Phelps faster than you could say “soggy hot dog.” That shark’s teeth would have gone through on Phelps’ charming underbite like a Ginsu knife through a tomato made of butter. So generally speaking, if you like keeping money, I’d advise you to place your bets on Team Shark.
This whole Phelps vs. Non-Playable Character scandal might not be the Shark Week America wanted – but, let’s be honest, it’s the Shark Week America deserves. Let’s recap:
The episode begins with a detailed analysis of Phelps’ physical American superiority over athletes with passports from other nation-states. Lesser men drool over his extra-long torso and indomitable competitive spirit. Everyone is excited to see him WIN!
Phelps and his torso accompany the research team to conduct some filler science stuff to collect data on the swimming speeds of several species of sharks.
Phelps, a human being who has literally no business swimming in the ocean, lowers himself into an ecosystem his species is actively destroying. As practice, he races an NPC reef shark and an NPC hammerhead, takes second place, and unlocks a gear upgrade.
Phelps gets in a cage to meet a Great White Shark and is Really Brave despite his heavily assured safety from actual violence. Everyone on set is rooting for Team U.S.A to WIN!
More actual science happens, during which Phelps briefly performs a moving homage to that Shia LaBeouf video.
Protected by a swarm of nameless workers, a drone, and some very expensive equipment, Phelps gets a slight head start on his fictional opponent, which displays a powerful leap at the last minute, pushing it just past Our Hero’s nose.
Finally, wrapped snugly in a blanket, Phelps graciously concedes losing to an animal that’s survived five mass extinctions. He asks for a rematch, since, as Trump says, “It is always important to WIN!”
And the story ends with possibly the most awkwardly overcompensating dab in the history of masculinity.
U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!
Look. Michael Phelps is an unbelievably talented athlete and a seemingly fine dude. It’s not his fault that this happened, and that they made him say dopey lines like:
Publicity stunts are like capitalism in that they’re actually dehumanizing to everyone involved. Maybe, someday, media outlets won’t have to depend on truthy sensationalism to get people interested in learning about the planet we are definitely, rapidly destroying.
Until then, I’m rooting for Team Shark.