Television can do comedy, it can do Westerns and it can do period romance. But, outside of the Kardashians, can it do horror? The genre has always been a tough fit for serialized storytelling. The most important aspect of a good scare flick is a palpable sense of peril, the feeling that any hero is a slash away from becoming a victim. On TV, where a show’s lifespan rests in the hands of the network, not the creators, stories need to move in directions other than forward because the ending is always in doubt. For a genre dependent on rhythm and pacing, this switch can be more deadly than a vengeful spirit. As frustrated viewers of The Walking Dead have learned, when a monster movie goes from a contained two hours to eight, 12, or longer, the propulsive adrenaline is leached away bit by bit, like blood from an open wound, leaving the entire enterprise as lifeless as an unreanimated corpse.
Overcoming this recent history would seem to be the challenge faced by The River, ABC’s new found-footage shock show overseen by the shaky-armed vets of the Paranormal Activity franchise. Set in the mystical backwaters of the Amazon, the series concerns the hunt for Dr. Emmet Cole, a celebrity naturalist (imagine the media savvy of the Crocodile Hunter mixed with the idiosyncratic family life of Dr. Steve Zissou) who went native, and then missing, six months before. Hot on his liquid trail are Cole’s extremely intense wife and son, a hot blonde, a father-daughter set of Mystical Latinos", and a few devoted documentary filmmakers who appear more afraid of losing a shot than losing their lives. The found-footage conceit begins to creak within the first moments of the pilot, when the randy, not-so-Steadicammed Brits stick their lenses into a tense mother-son moment. But on the whole, the meta framework (The River is a show about making a show about the search for Cole), though forced, serves the story, particularly in the early going, by dispensing with draggy exposition almost entirely. After a brisk clip package explaining the smiley history of The Undiscovered Country with Dr. Emmet Cole and its mysterious, unscheduled cancellation, we’re off and boating. (Whether we’ll be able to stomach multiple seasons of this wobbly voyage without reaching for the Dramamine — or the remote — remains to be seen.)
We quickly learn that the maybe-good doctor had long since abandoned his fascination with mundane things like snakes and fatherhood and had instead steered the Magus — his Bunim/Murray-wired pleasure craft — straight off the deep end of rainforest magic, immortality theories, and ghostly mumbo jumbo. The smartest thing about The River is its casting of natural loon Bruce Greenwood as Cole. With his piercing blue eyes and off-kilter, true-believer leer, Greenwood’s Cole is a charismatic shaman/charlatan of the first order, one who could sell you snake oil and then convince you of its useful, otherworldly applications (including hair regrowth, phantom management, and flavoring agent). Unfortunately for the audience (and for Greenwood: The River shoots in Hawaii), Cole only haunts the first few episodes of The River, visible in B-roll flashback as well as found footage within the found footage, messily cataloged in the boat’s screening room.
That bequeaths the bulk of screen time to Cole’s jittery extended family, both actual and professional. As Tess, the occasionally ex-Mrs. Cole, Leslie Hope is wound tighter than the Brillo-like curls on her head, the sort of guilt-wracked dingbat more comfortable shouting questions at a murderous wraith than speaking honestly with her son. And as Lincoln Cole, London-born Joe Alexander is a tall man’s Aaron Paul, a gawky doctor forced to be the gaunt face of the audience as he transitions from cynical skeptic to true believer. (The show’s best magic trick is the way Lincoln’s accent becomes more English the more agitated he gets. Presto change-o!) The rest of the unwashed ensemble, including Thomas Kretschmann as a Teutonic Sawyer and Lone Star’s spunky Eloise Mumford (out of place in waist-deep mud, but, then again, who wouldn’t be?), are the sort of secret-bearing ciphers necessary for suspense building, but potentially catastrophic for actual character investment. Only the lovely Paulina Gaitan, last seen dodging narcos in Sin Nombre, suggests emotional depth greater than the shallows that ensnared the abandoned Magus.
Still, it’s clear that dwelling too long on the details — Are there really cameras in every room of the boat? Do they ever run out of batteries or, you know, film? Why does the Magus have a panic room but not a working shower? — can be more fatal than Amazonian quicksand. As Emmet’s jaundiced ex-producer Clark puts it, The Undiscovered Country, “wasn’t about magic. It was about product.” The same could be said of The River. The show works best as a highly refined scare-delivery mechanism and, in the early going, it succeeds. The first hour’s brush with Cam Travers, a pedestrian-named vampire moth the size of a microwave oven, is suitably ooky, and the second hour’s visit to a Barbie graveyard in the middle of the jungle is even better. Clearly inspired by a popular Mexican tourist attraction, the “spirit trees” hang heavy with disturbing, plasticky baby fruit, leading to both the show’s best moment (when A.J., the hard-bitten camera guy, taunts the toys without noticing the blinking doll just over his shoulder) and its most effective use of the Blair Witch technique (when the crew sprint through the rain forest in terror only to end up exactly where they started). By the time a weeping Lincoln has to trade first his childhood teddy bear and a freshly exhumed, 200-year-old skeleton just to get his mommy back from the clutches of a laughing boogy-child in the water, I was hooked.
No matter the genre, ABC is clearly banking on the Lost effect to take hold, what with the promise of a global conspiracy, fantastical juju, and the presence of weird-talking militiamen on boats. And The River’s batshit commitment to wild-eyed bullshit (CGI spirit dragonflies! Generic native medicine men living forever! Significant festering insect bites!) is exhilarating in the same way that first glimpse of a polar bear in the tropics was, particularly when no one is yet clamoring for “answers.” Which is why it’s probably wise not to think of The River as a horror show at all. Rather, the best bits reminded me of a supernatural, earthbound Star Trek, with the Magus the dilapidated Enterprise. (So far there’s only a disappointing lack of humanoids with ridged noses.) It’s probably a better way for the network to market it as well. Because after all, unlike a scary movie, a continuing mission of exploration is more likely not only to live long, but maybe even to prosper.