"There's magic out there..." – Dr Emmet Cole
I honestly wasn't expecting ABC's The River to be so heavily indebted to the same network's lamented Lost, but there's a fair amount of crossover because this show likewise revolves around a group of people negotiating a beautiful but scary wilderness, being attacked by half-invisible supernatural forces and tribal "Others". There are even "flashbacks" via family home videos, and a subtitled character who speaks no English. The more blatant influence is the "found footage" sub-genre popularised for modern audiences by 1999's Blair Witch Project, which isn't surprising given this show comes from Paranormal Activity's director Oren Peli and its sequel's co-writer Michael R. Perry. (Produced by Steven Spielberg, like that actually means much.)
The show is a decent amount of fun, and it's been constructed with care and attention by creators Peli and Perry, but I found myself growing less enamoured with it as time ticked by. It was initially a relief to see all the characters quickly believe in a supernatural explanation for who/what has taken their father, after they're attacked by a bloodthirsty "ghost" after discovering Emmet's forsaken ship loaded with videos of him being given a spiritual awakening by tribesmen, but in some ways I'd have preferred a slow-burn. By the end of the double-bill opener alone, so much has happened that you rather wish The River had kept some cards closer to its chest for awhile longer. The show also starts risking unintentional laughter, as the things affecting the expedition get more outlandish (such as someone being possessed by the spirit of Emmet, who appears in the form of a dragonfly they swallow in their sleep).
The "found footage" style definitely gives The River a unique identity on television, and it does a very impressive and logical job justifying this setup. Beyond the camera shots being taken by the documentary crew, the Magus ship is credibly laden with cameras used to capture Emmet's everyday activities as part of his successful TV show. This means the show can jump around to many different vantage points, and it mostly makes sense.
A few tricks have also been remembered from the abovementioned Paranormal Activity saga, with use of those movie's "fast-forwarding" of particular scenes that lead to a creepy or shocking moment. It's just a shame that audiences are now to au fait with this style of filmmaking that The River doesn't quite manage to be frightening enough. It's enjoyably unnerving at times, but claims that this is a terrifying TV show are somewhat overhyped. In fact, sometimes its style of delivery works against the show, because while the documentary style provides a sense of "reality", that same reality can also make some of the weirder moments look plain silly. (A sequence where a possessed character wanders around the ship feels particularly dumb, somehow—like it's inviting you to giggle at the moment's preposterousness, instead of convince you this shit's deadly serious and scary.) Indeed, the whole tone of the show doesn't make an effort to convince you this is a serious situation, which I guess was a creative choice they took.
Overall, The River launches in an interesting manner and introduced its concept, style, story and characters very well. I'm also relieved that ABC only requested eight episodes, as there's less chance the story will start to drag. I just hope that a theoretical second season doesn't get increased to the network standard of 24 episodes. It's hard to imagine the writers getting that much mileage from a show with this kind of premise, told in this way, so I'm hoping ABC play the long-game and only ask for 10-12 episodes each season. (Seeing as episode 3 shed half of its initial 7.8m viewers, this may all be wishful thinking!)
There are definite concerns, because even by the third episode I was beginning to wonder if the "found footage" aspect of the story was even that necessary. While it gives the show a definite hook and unique feel, everything happening is so outlandish that any credibility gained by the documentary shooting style is quickly lost. (A few moments would probably have worked better if filmed traditionally, too.) But while the third episode was notably weaker than the first two (almost like a Star Trek-style episode where an "away mission" goes disastrously wrong), I'm hoping The River will find itself and start developing a truly compelling mystery from its tasty ingredients.
- Interesting power-switch on The River's writing staff: the show's co-creator/showrunner is Michael R. Perry, who worked as a staff writer on Millennium during the season when Glen Morgan was running things with James Wong. Morgan is now a co-executive producer and writer on his show.
- Sticking to the Morgan and Wong connection, it's interesting that since the two writers parted company they're both now involved with two of TV's scarier shows. Wong is writing for FX's American Horror Story.
written by Michael Green & Michael R. Perry (story by Oren Peli & Michael R. Perry) (1.1), Michael Green & Zack Estrin (1.2) & Glen Morgan (1.3) / directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (1.1-1.2) & Michael Katleman (1.3) / 7 & 14 February 2012 / ABC