|Television Collision: The River Doesn’t Run Deep Enough|
When the concept of ABC's The River was first revealed… no one got excited, because we had all seen The Blair Witch Project a little over a decade ago and if we weren’t sick of found footage back then already, Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity brought back a variation of the same for contemporary audiences already.
The basic premise of The River is this: Dr. Emmet Cole used to have a successful nature and travel show, in which he and his family globetrotted and explained the world to the audience. But now Emmet Cole and his entire crew have disappeared somewhere in the Amazon. In a desperate attempt to refuse to accept his probable death, his wife and son assemble a team to go looking for Cole and his crew, and a camera crew is filming the entire rescue mission. Which, of course, goes horribly awry as soon as the cameras start rolling.
I expressed some initial thoughts about the early episodes of The River on Episode 75 of "The Idiot Box" podcast over at CraveOnline.com. But let me reiterate why I believe The River simply messed up in its approach and now has to pay for it.
This is the fundamentally wrong decision the makers of The River (Oren Peli, producer & writer of Paranormal Activity 1-4 and Michael R. Perry, TV veteran) made: either give us the found footage of Emmet Cole and his crew disappearing or give us the found footage of Cole’s wife and son and their crew disappearing. Either way provides terror, because the intro of the show pretty much makes clear that no one got out alive. Heck, you could have even started out Season 1 with footage of Emmet & Crew and then moved into footage of Wife & Son & Crew in subsequent seasons.
The constant interweaving of the “jungle magic” that happened to Emmet and the “jungle magic” that happens to his rescue team makes for a choppy TV show, mostly because the rescue team always looks to found footage from Emmet to find a solution for their magic troubles, which is a very heavy-handed storytelling device.
The show is only in Episode 6 and I am already getting tired of the near misses in finding Emmet Cole. The rescue team is so close so often and has already found two of Emmet Cole’s former crew members (I won’t say if they were dead or alive, maybe you haven’t seen it all yet), so how much longer can this trek really be drawn out?
And let’s address the “magic” that supposedly lives in the Amazon and terrorizes the rescue team (as it previously terrorized Emmet and his crew as well): the whole concept is offensive. The Amazon region is vast and mysterious, for sure. The rain forest is long not done revealing its secrets to us (unless we succeed in chopping it all down first), but that is no reason to place evil spirits there just because it’s a place mankind hasn’t “conquered” or “tamed” yet. Every time the Spanish-speaking exposition girl (her name is Jahel, btw) goes rambling on about another ghost, demon, spirit or ancient legend, the crew is inclined not to believe her (although recently some of them have come around). And yet the only problems they ever encounter are exactly those supernatural ones, even when parts of their ship break, they do so because something supernatural has taken a hold of the ship and won’t let it go.
When we examine the horror elements of The River, some of them are successful (even in their offensive way of coming about). There’s nothing more unsettling than watching a silent, agile figure creep up on one of our characters on CCTV. And the one time the two realities of Emmet Cole’s crew and the rescue team actually connected in a recent episode, when they found Emmet’s main camera man, whose daughter is also on the rescue team, it made for the very first intense emotional moment of the entire show. Lena’s pain and horror at realizing that her father, now a ghost condemned to stay on another ship, has died a long time ago and all she can do is what his ghost burn, was a powerful moment and beautifully rounded out her character.
Round characters are something The River is missing anyway. We get clichéd details about the rescue crew that are supposed to tell us why they are willing to go on the mission at all, but really they all have remained fairly flat so far. This is especially harmful for the characters of Emmet Cole’s son and wife, since they should have the most reason to want to rescue him, yet their motives are vague at best and their behavior is erratic.
Emmet’s wife and Lincoln’s mother, Tess, is just a complete miscast for me, because she neither looks young enough in flashbacks to be Lincoln’s mother then, nor does she look old enough now to be Lincoln’s mother in the contemporary moment. Furthermore, she had had an affair with one of the camera men, and for a long time, it seems, and yet mysteriously now she is obsessed with finding Emmet, who basically dumped her to venture out into the Amazon again. Her motivations make no sense, especially when she – holding her son in her arms – yammers: “I just want to get my family back”. You have your son right there! Stop risking his life on a suicide mission through the haunted Amazon!
I don’t want to harp on here and pound the show into the ground. It is good for the occasional scare (if you haven’t seen too many horror movies, that is; otherwise you’ll see everything coming a mile away) and at least it is attempting to break the format of standard television in some regards, even if the found footage thing would have to be more extreme for the show to really make a statement.