The River (Tuesdays at 9:00 on ABC)
It's hard to believe that it's taken over ten years for the found-footage phenomenon to make its way from the big screen to the small screen. Ever since The Blair Witch Project shattered audience expectation of what a horror film could be, the idea of taking first-person camerawork and letting stories develop "naturally" has dominated cinema. The format has been applied to countless horror, science fiction, and now even fantasy superhero films. The style forces filmmakers to be creative and allows for low budgets, so studios like them as well. So it's a wonder that it's now 2012, twelve and a half years after the genre really began, and we're just getting a television series in the found-footage horror format in ABC's The River.
Dr. Emmett Cole (Bruce Greenwood) has been hosting the adventure series The Undiscovered Country for twenty years when he and his crew go missing somewhere in the Amazon. He is declared legally dead after months of searching. The day of his memorial service, his ship's personal distress call is picked up. Cole's son Lincoln (Joe Anderson) and wife Tess (Leslie Hope) set out to find Cole and his shipmates, and Cole's former producer Clark (Paul Blackthorne) convinces them to allow cameras to follow their progress for an intended reality series. The motley crew members include a mechanic (Daniel Zacapa) and his daughter (Paulina Gaitan), who only speaks Spanish and is like a walking encyclopedia of local Amazonian folklore. By the time Cole's ship, the Magus, is found, the shit hits the fan and a bloodthirsty spirit is released.
The first hour of The River moves incredibly fast, almost too fast for its own good. No sooner do we meet Cole then he's missing, then dead, then found, and within ten minutes we're already in the Amazon looking for his ship. It's a bit overwhelming, but it makes sense in the style. Found footage films are almost always fast-paced, and their running times are generally much shorter than typical films; going in with the expectation of seeing something akin to Paranormal Activity on TV will prepare you for that.
Jaume Collet-Serra directs the first two episodes with a keen sense of terror. Whenever things aren't plowing ahead, plot-wise, the cameras stationed around the crew's ship linger on strange images of moving trees, people sleeping, lights flickering, dolls blinking, and other truly creepy images. Collet-Sera, a feature film director, nicely brings out the suspense and some small human moments as well (there aren't many here, as the first two episodes are focused almost entirely on scaring the audience). Oren Peli, the creator of Paranormal Activity, is credited with creating the story, though his influence as executive producer is heavily noticeable. Like his successful film franchise, the story has (for now) taken a backseat to the scares and to putting the characters into creepy situations. Basically all we know about the characters is surface level: their jobs, their names. We get hints at Tess's infidelity as a wife and hints of Lincoln's hatred for his past as Cole's constantly-traveling child. But that's it.
Given that, it's hard to really judge any of the performances yet. Film star Joe Anderson (Across the Universe, The Ruins) makes his first foray into television as Lincoln, and he comes off a bit irritating. He does little more than act angry or scared, which gets boring and irritating without some levels every once in a while. The show is at its best when it's featuring Leslie Hope (24), with her mysteriously overwhelming desire just to know if Cole is alive so that the blame won't be on her, or the revelatory Paulina Gaitan as Jahel, a Mexican actress who gets all the pilot's best moments. The ensemble is universally one-note, as can be expected from a horror outing, but I have hope that in subsequent episodes everyone's characters will be defined more clearly.
Overall, I really enjoyed The River. It's not the strongest show, and it obviously heavily borrows from more successful series and films: Lost, The X-Files, The Blair Witch Project, Anaconda, Paranormal Activity, and the novel Heart of Darkness. But still, its use of scares is effective and it's an admirable effort. The River is conceptually daring, being the first found-footage TV series. Plus it's debuting on the heels of the first successful horror series in many years (American Horror Story), so it had a lot to live up to. The jury's still out on whether it did, but for now it's highly entertaining and something you can really get behind.