Most of the first hour of ABC’s new drama “The River” plays out quite similarly to this:
Simply substitute a boat for the plane and the jungles of a South Pacific island to South America’s Amazon. It even has its own Smoke Monster. Well, kind of. But by the second episode of the Steven Spielberg-produced series, things go from creepily familiar to full-blown “Oh F**k That’s Not Cool.” It is “Lost” meets Paranormal Activity. (No surprise, then, that one of its creators and executive producers, Oren Peli, created Paranormal Activity, and another EP, Jason Blum, was in on Paranormal Activity 1, 2 and 3.) The suspenseful moments include not only mysterious monsters that fling unsuspecting bystanders to their death but evil spirits, magic, possession, ghosts and a tree adorned with hundreds of baby dolls that may or may not flicker their eyelids open as one walks past. Not cool.
Where “Lost,” in its early years, settled for vague mysteries, “The River” is upping the ante and incorporating even more supernatural twists. For the most part, it works. “The River,” using the found-footage approach, is strange and unsettling, happier to dwell in creepier realms. Toward the end of its second hour, however, it goes a bit too far, losing its building tension in absurdity. And interestingly, that is mostly what happened to “Lost” in its later years. Sometimes, answers are better left undiscovered. Perhaps it isn’t fair to begin with the “Lost” comparisons, but at this point in television’s history, so much of what we see is a regurgitation of past hits, few projects are great enough to stand on their own without mention of predecessors. “The River” is good, full of intense moments and high production value. But it’s also a mixed bag of gimmicks we’ve already seen.
This “found footage” chronicles a team looking for Dr. Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood), who hosted the TV show “The Undiscovered Country” for 22 years, chronicling the world’s hidden places and inhabitants. He and a cameraman have been missing in the Amazon for 6 months and are presumed dead, but Cole’s wife, Tess (Leslie Hope), is determined to keep searching. The network behind “Country” will pay for the search as long as it can be filmed and Cole’s semi-estranged son, Lincoln (Joe Anderson), comes along. Off they go, along with show producer Clark Quietly (Paul Blackthorne); cameramen A.J. Poulain (Shaun Parkes) and Sammy (Jeff Galfer); mechanic Emilio Valenzuela (Daniel Zacapa) and his daughter, Jahel (Paulina Gaitan); security man Kurt Brynildson (Thomas Kretschmann); and Linda Landry (Eloise Mumford), the daughter of the missing cameraman.
Because of “Country,” A.J., Sammy and sometimes Clark are always rolling, capturing the footage that is presumably found down the line, though we don’t know under what circumstances. (Why is found footage such a trend? By letting us know from the beginning that this footage will be “found” by others, can we not assume its original owners will lose it somehow, or die alongside it? Isn’t that kind of a spoiler?) The goal of the searchers is to track Cole’s beacon signal, which suddenly went off 6 months into his disappearance, and later to find his boat, the Magus, which is equipped with countless cameras thanks to “The Undiscovered Country.” What is captured on those is included with the found footage, as are scenes from old “Country” episodes and personal tapes recorded by Cole during his adventures. All of these footage sources work for the most part, presenting the tale from awkward angles and through shaky chase scenes, although whoever had to theoretically cull through this footage and edit it together deserves a medal. Scenes featuring footage from the boat’s cameras are where the Paranormal Activity similarities come into play, and the effect works well.
Naturally, everyone on the search team has his or her own motives for wanting to find Cole or help his family find him, reasons hinted at in the premiere. Tess, as Lincoln guesses, may be motivated by guilt as much as love for finding her husband, who uncharacteristically left her behind on his last trip. Lincoln, who has his own issues with having grown up on the TV screen for the world to see, assumes she had an affair. Whatever her reasons, she is steadfast in believing Cole is alive and reachable, no matter what kind of darkness lurks in the rainforest. Jahel, who can converse with spirits and senses danger ahead, tries to warn the crew against the search, but it’s useless. They all barrel forward down the river and to the Magus, where they unleash the first of many entities out to kill them. It doesn’t take long for one of them to bite it (sorry, Sammy), and thanks to Cole’s personal tapes, they learn he was out to discover real magic, not just the generic magic he always discussed on “Country.” He got himself into a supernatural mess, and now his family and crew are in it, too.
There’s a striking lack of incredulity among the characters as they are faced with the unexplainable, from hands that reach out from the river to grab Tess to those damned baby dolls that move of their own accord. Perhaps they, too, watched “Lost” and are open to trippy things happening in jungles. “The River” is indeed filled with unsettling twists — viewers will either scream or groan at them depending on their personal horror tastes. If you bought The Blair Witch Project hook, line and sinker when it premiered in 1999, then you’ll likely appreciate this new drama. But “The River” writers can learn from Witch, just as it can learn from the many other thrillers it emulates: Don’t be so concerned with explanations. The more we don’t know, the better.
Sarah Carlson does not gusta being scared, either. She lives in Texas.