Review: 'MerPeople' Explores Drag Beneath the Waves
Timothy Rawles READ TIME: 4 MIN.
From the very first moment of Netflix's new docuseries "MerPeople," we witness the dangers of being a professional mermaid. The performers suffer from the burning effects of over-chlorinated water. Thus begins a fascinating deep dive into the world of mermaid culture and the important people who are a part of it.
If you're not aware of this phenomenon, it's a small group of niche performers in lavishly detailed fins, whose stage is under thousands of gallons of water. Comparatively, drag queens are the terranean equivalent. In fact, watching this captivating series you get the sense that the "mer" industry is just the sub-aquatic cousin of drag.
The series concentrates on a few key performers: Sparkles, an aspiring professional mermaid; Morgana Alba, the founder of Circus Siren Pod; gay aquarium showman Eric Ducharme; and besotted gay African American kelpie "Blixunami." We also follow the founder of Fat Mermaids, Chè Monique, a plus-size performer navigating through the culture and, because of safety issues, somewhat restricted by her proportions.
What is immediately clear about this series is that the people involved don't take it lightly. It's not an art form that should be; it's just too dangerous. "You're blind underwater, you're deaf underwater, and your job is to make it look easy and magical," says Alba in part one.
In four chapters, we get the real-life linear arc of these five performers who can separate reality from fantasy but gain inner (and outer) strength from the mythical oceanic pixies they embody. Like clowns and drag queens, merfolk are there to entertain people for money, but, on the other hand, relate to their seaborne personas on a strong level. This lifestyle embraces magic, peace, love, and happiness. Who doesn't want that?
But there are obstacles along the way. There isn't a high demand for mermaid performers, and with such a niche market, the competition is dense. It is all in who you know. In Episode 1 we are introduced to one important industry connection, Eric Ducharme. From a very early age, he was fascinated by mermaids and often used cosplay to entertain his supportive family. This led him to work at the famous Weeki Wachee Springs State Park in Florida, where he became a "merformer" in their 10-story high water tank.
After resigning from that position, he became a highly sought-after mermaid tail designer, which led him to open his own underwater attraction, Florida's The Mertailor's Aquarium Encounter.
Then there is Sparkles. We see her struggle doing private gigs but hone her craft well enough to be invited to perform in Las Vegas under the mentorship of Alba. For these specialized artists, it's good work if you can get it.
"MerPeople" is not a series that mocks its subjects. Although the tone is light-hearted and the soundtrack is as whimsical as its topic, and some of the colloquialisms such as saying "shello," or "that's fintastic" will make you chuckle, there isn't a wink-wink, nudge-nudge to the viewer that this is a joke. It is a trade that requires a lot of skill, gracefulness, and dedication.
It is easy to go into this series with prejudice, maybe thinking that the culture is a brand of kink, or a form of unhealthy extreme obsession. And there are probably sectors in which that applies, but "MerPeople" isn't about objectifying its subjects or obscuring their goals. Instead, it is a straightforward documentary about the culture and finding one's place, young or old, inside it. For them, this mythical world is far better than the one filled with air.
"There is absolutely no worry about what's happening above [the water]," says Ducharme in one episode. "You're there, I'm there in that moment. And nothing else in the world matters."
"MerPeople" is a beautifully photographed, fascinating docuseries. There is even a thrilling King and Queen of the Sea pageant in episode four. Although sometimes it can feel corny, there is no denying that the world-building is as interesting as the people who construct it.
"MerPeople" premieres on Netflix on May 23.