by Josie Kafka
“Give me the bear!”
ABC’s latest attempt to replace Lost premiered with a two-episode starter kit on Tuesday. The River tells the story of a group of plucky heroes searching for one Emmet Cole, missing TV naturalist. The search is funded by a television network, so it is being filmed. The clues leading to Cole’s body (alive, dead, or otherwise engaged) consist of found footage. In other words, take your Dramamine: shaky cam ahead.
Creator Oren Peli made his name with the Paranormal Activity franchise, which IMDb informs me is in its fourth—fourth!—incarnation. He is joined by TV veteran Michael Perry, who has worked on everything from The Dead Zone to Persons Unknown to Law and Order: SVU. Their combined skills, along with some likely input from exec producer Steven Spielberg, mean a lot of TV-savvy. Peli and Perry know all the tricks, and they use most of them in the first two episodes of the show: everything from nonsensical meta-commentary on the nature of TV production (including shots of camera guys filming themselves looking into another camera) to the barely-there monsters that are habituates of the Amazonian rainforest.
The show doesn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts, though. I’d expected a horror-filled thrill-ride, and purposely avoided watching it late at night. The River, however, is not scary. Only one scene made me jump, and it wasn’t a blood-soaked rampage glimpsed through “naturalistic” camera work. It was the sound of a teddy bear falling to the ground. And the adrenaline rush of that moment was undercut by the risibility of the tree covered in dolls. Creepy, yes. But so obviously meant to be creepy that it was funny.
The motivating contrivance has potential, but some of ABC’s recent shows (see also: this and this)make me wonder if their executives sit around in posh conference rooms, munching on donuts and trying to figure out how to milk the flashback structure for…just…one…more…show.
The structure could easily be forgiven if I cared more about the characters, but it’s difficult to get a sense of them in the middle of all the blood-curdling screams. Basically, they’re all fodder for the overriding mystery, because they all have links to the missing Emmet Cole, who went missing on a search for “magic” in the Amazon. The rules behind that magic are unclear: it seems to be a hodgepodge of legends, ghost stories, and a prevailing belief in the essential spirituality of brown people.
Final Thoughts: Meh. If it were summer, I’d probably give this show a shot—there are only six episodes left, which seems to promise some fast satisfaction. But given the busyness of this season’s schedule, and the fact that I think next week it airs opposite some new Storage Wars episodes, I’ll probably give it a pass.
Two out of four teddy bears.