The Walking Dead and American Horror Story demonstrate, in their own ways and with varying levels of success, that scares and dread can last the length of a season. But the job of keeping a show scary week after week still seems abnormally difficult. Beyond the usual troubles of building and keeping an audience, it’s necessary to maintain tension between frights, as well as tell a story well crafted enough to satisfy viewers’ willing suspension of disbelief. So far, ABC’s The River looks capable of achieving those goals, in no small part because of its shameless grabs from two wildly successful franchises that toed the line between horror, mystery, and adventure, as it very much hopes to do itself: From Lost, it finds its jungle environment and ambiguous plot, and from co-creator Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity, it takes just about everything else.
Surprisingly enough, that marriage works. The River has a style unlike anything else on television, thanks to an ironclad devotion to its found-footage ethos. Unlike most other works in the genre (including the bulk of the Paranormal Activity movies), the quality of the show’s story isn’t sacrificed by Peli and co-creator Michael R. Perry’s gimmick, which enhances what would otherwise be a trite and boring program. There’s an inherent eeriness to the footage what it’s executed well, a creeping sense of discomfort in the voyeurism of it all that The River captures in droves.
Nevertheless, there still needs to be a story to justify the use of this gimmick. After globe-trotting TV host Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood, channeling his best Jack Hanna) disappears on an expedition of an unexplored part of the Amazon River, his guilt-ridden wife, Tess (Leslie Hope), organizes a team to track him down, with her estranged son, Lincoln (Joe Anderson), in tow. Paying their way is a documentary crew led by Emmet’s longtime producer, Clark (Paul Blackthorne), who strikes a deal to film the search as a new reality show. In fast succession, the team finds Emmet’s marooned ship, the Magus, which is teeming with cameras of its own, then make themselves at home aboard. In other words, the found-footage premise is well justified, giving director Jaume Collet-Serra and those who follow lots of angles to work with in every foreseeable episode.
And at least in the first two, The River steps toward becoming a taut, entertaining thriller with enough mystery to keep viewers coming back for more. While each character seems like a rote archetype in the pilot (most of all, the ship’s mechanic, Emilio, played by Daniel Zacapa, and his daughter, Jahel, played by Paulina Gaitán, who deserve better than their racial caricatures as superstitious locals), there are inklings of character development. By the end of two-hour premiere, Lincoln, Tess, and Clark seem less the petulant child, the shrieking widow, and the scum of reality television’s underbelly and more a compelling trio with lingering emotional baggage. A hunch says that credit lies with producer Michael Green, who began to do the same just as NBC’s short-lived drama Kings got the axe. Much like that show (and Lost), The River needs its characters to grow and fuel narratives if it has any hope of lasting past the eight-episode run ABC has committed to air.
At its current breakneck pace, which introduces and resolves a pair of mysteries worthy of drawn-out, multi-episode arcs, it’s unlikely The River will be able to keep serving up mystery-of-the-week episodes, with requisite scares included, and still make for good television over the long haul. The series manages to serve up a legitimate fright or two, but it needs to slow down. Horror films can sprint, but their television counterparts need to recognize, and adjust to, the marathons they face. For all that The River has to offer, here’s hoping that the writers figure that out sooner rather than later.