Massachusetts Daily Collegian

“The river” a flawed trip upstream

By Victoria Knobloch

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Ever since “Lost” ended in 2010, networks have been trying to fill the crazy cult TV show void. Any time a new genre pilot hit the air, critics would wonder, “Is this the next ‘Lost?’” From the ill-fated “V” and “Flash Forward” to the currently running “Alcatraz” and the whimsical “Once Upon A Time,” everyone wants a piece of the magic island’s fandom. Despite dwindling ratings towards the end, “Lost” represents what TV producers have known since “Star Trek” – geeks are an obsessively loyal demographic.

Courtesy sharetv.org

Trying to tap the “Lost” niche market is presumably why, in the first episode of ABC’s new thriller “The River,” a magical smoke cloud attacks an intrepid group of adventurers in the jungle.

But any promise of six seasons of communal speculation is squelched by a quick explanation: It’s just a ghost. All the characters accept that and move on. And any nostalgia we feel for the good ol’ island days as we watch these new characters tromping through the Amazon jungle is swiftly ruined by the sheer unpleasantness of over-acting, cliché-ridden writing and a total lack of creativity, surprise or intrigue.

“The River” starts with scenes from a documentary nature show, starring Dr. Emmet Cole – Bruce Greenwood, or Captain Pike as some of you may know him – a family man who sees the magic in the wild world. We see glimpses of his wife and young son along for the ride as they explore the great untouched wildernesses. Then we see news footage; Dr. Emmet Cole has gone missing in the Amazon, and after six months he’s been declared dead.

Cut to Emmet Cole’s wife, Tess, played by Leslie Hope, seeking out her now-grown son, Lincoln, played by Joe Anderson, to try and convince him to search for his father. She proposes a voyage deep into the Amazon, believing her husband to still be alive, and Lincoln begrudgingly agrees to go. There they encounter mystical natives – what other kind are there? – little ghost girls, a forest of possessed dolls and something suspiciously like the smoke monster.

The gimmick here is that everything we see is supposed to be found footage. The only reason Tess can afford to go looking for her husband is because a TV production company has offered to pay for it, as long as they can record every minute. “The River” is the brainchild of Oren Peli, creator of “Paranormal Activity,” and it’s supposed to work on a very similar premise. But the basic question that nags a bit towards the end of “Paranormal Activity” really wreaks havoc on the plausibility of “The River”: Why would you keep filming?

The first episode goes to great lengths to have cameras in every place that important things are happening. The motley search crew, including a cameraman, a dastardly British filmmaker, a pretty blond love interest for the son and a young Latina girl whose only purpose is to believe in magic and look worried, quickly find Emmet Cole’s missing boat.

This is a boat fully equipped with cameras in every room, capturing every possible angle, because – surprise! – a documentary series had been filmed on it. From this point on, we switch between the scratchy video viewpoint of these cameras and the clearer, near-film quality footage of the professional cameras held by the hired cameramen. Intimate moments are caught on tape, no matter what. The whole thing is jarring, and it rarely feels like real found footage.

Since “The Blair Witch Project,” found footage has been a cheap, sometimes interesting way to tell a paranormal story. But “The River” shoots in Puerto Rico and Hawaii; budget is not a concern. Ultimately, there is no reason to insist upon pretending this actually happened, because it’s blatantly clear it didn’t. “The River” might have had a shot at an intriguing premise if it had dropped the faux documentary angle. The time and energy spent trying to perpetuate the feeling of truth would have been much better spent coming up with some better fiction.

The second episode of “The River” feels a bit more organic, but only because there are fewer moments emphasizing that we’re watching a documentary. The whole crew goes blind, one by one, because they’ve been cursed by magical natives. It might have been suspenseful if we cared about anyone involved. Turns out, pretending these characters are real people does not automatically make them real people, and every last person on the show is a cardboard cutout. Worse, many of them are downright annoying.

Paranormal stories thrive in short formats. Scary movies work because they can create suspense with the promise of resolve in 90 minutes. Shows like “The X-Files” or “Lost” or “Twin Peaks” prove that longer mystery arcs rarely end satisfactorily. What these shows have that makes them worth watching season after season is not what goes bump in the night, but the quality of the character reacting to said bump.

“The River” is severely lacking here. Unless a whole new cast shows up, preferably with a more professional camera crew, this will probably be one more show to float downstream to cancellation.

Victoria Knobloch can be reached at [email protected]

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