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Cousteau's Grandson Swims with the Sharks

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Tonight, CBS offers TV viewers an underwater adventure called Shark: Mind of a Demon with Fabian Cousteau. Fabian, that's Jacques' grandson, has the family knack for undersea exploration, and - as our TV critic Andrew Wallenstein notes - he also has a flair for drama.

ANDRE WALLENSTEIN reporting:

There have been enough shark documentaries on television in recent years to fill the Pacific Ocean. The feeding frenzy has been such that I generally don't watch them for too long, except Mind of a Demon. However, as absorbing as this CBS special is, it's not quite for the reasons intended. You see, our explorer - Fabian Cousteau - takes an unconventional approach to studying sharks, as he explains here.

(Soundbite of lapping water)

Mr. FABIAN COUSTEAU (Undersea Explorer): To obtain most of those pictures, the photographer or the cameraman are sitting in a cage, basically separated from the animal. They're enticed by throwing bait in the water and wheeling it in towards the camera so that you can get that fantastic shot of the gaping mouth and the pearly whites biting at the camera, and that doesn't give an accurate look at the life of a great white shark.

I wanted to go beyond the cage, go beyond that blind and intermingle with these animals as one of them.

WALLENSTEIN: But how Cousteau goes about getting up close and personal with sharks is kind of kooky. He takes his inspiration from a panel of an old Belgian comic strip, The Adventures of Tintin. It pictures little Tintin navigating the ocean depths in a shark-shaped submarine. And so that's what Cousteau has built as his own vessel, complete with cameras for eyes and ribs made of steel. The final result looks like an animatronic leftover from Jaws II.

We follow the experimental sub from development to deployment, and it's problem-plagued, to say the least. On more than one occasion, the sub sinks to the bottom and stays there. In another instance, Cousteau has to eject himself from the vessel and literally swim for his life. Before long, the frustrations of getting the shark submarine operational starts to drive a wedge between Cousteau and his crew.

Mr. COUSTEAU: I'm sure someone like Mark did - it was probably questioning that I could even die.

Unidentified Man #1: I began thinking of Fabian pretty derogatory. I didn't know whether he was trying to ride the laurels of his name.

Unidentified Man #2: I have a passion for wildlife in the oceans, and I'm there. Markey Marks(ph) has a passion for sharks. He's there. Fabian Cousteau, if all he's trying to do is prove something to his dad, he's going to cause trouble for all of us.

WALLENSTEIN: And herein lies the problem with Mind of a Demon. I found what went on above the water far more compelling than whatever lurked below. The young, dashing Cousteau is a fascinating figure. He's got his grandfather's showman instincts, but the question that looms is whether his vanity is outstripping his common sense. But did this documentary teach me anything about sharks? Not really. I'm not even sure what Cousteau's innovative approach actually yielded in terms of footage.

There's nothing in Mind of a Demon that uncovers the secret world of sharks. There are the same tired old pieties about not demonizing these majestic creatures, which makes the documentary's very name, Mind of a Demon, a bizarre choice. Who's the demon, the poor misunderstood shark, or Cousteau? In the absence of evidence, I'm going to go with the latter.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: The CBS special Mind of a Demon airs tonight. Andrew Wallenstein is an editor at the Hollywood Reporter.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from slate.com. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And I'm Alex Chadwick. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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