ABC’s latest supernatural offering comes in the form of the current hot trend of found footage with The River. Co-created by Paranormal Activity’s Oren Peli, and produced by Steven Spielberg, the show is the latest in a long line of this type of production. The difference here is that for the first time there’s a story and people to attach to, rather than throwaway characters that are utilized to freak you out.
It’s a supernatural story, although early on we’re not entirely certain of anything that’s going on around the boat, and The River is also a heart pounding adventure. Think of it like if the survivors of Oceanic 815 were on a boat in the Amazon looking for Jack, and we were watching Charlie’s home movies of the adventure. That’s a little like what The River is, but it’s also a whole lot of extra spooky without the American Horror Story kooky.
Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood) is a beloved television personality very much styled after the “Crocodile Hunter.” He put his family on television in his series The Undiscovered Country where he showed the world the wonders of nature. Then Emmet went missing. Six months go by and a beacon begins to emit his possible location, and his family begins their search along with the show crew.
This is honestly the best work in the found footage genre I can remember. First of all it’s clear that this style works perfectly on television as director Jaume Collet-Serra serves up a heaping amount of the tension and thrill desired, but takes it easy on frightening the audience. The weakest part of this genre is the need to constantly freak out the audience with scare tactics. The River would rather you sit on the edge of your seat anxiously for an entire hour, then at some point in the next episode make you scream with fear. That’s not to say a few memorable classic scares are missing, there’s some great horror work done in the first hour.
It’s also nice that you can watch a full hour of a thriller and many of the typical characters that would be dead by this point in a film are still around. The River is unabashed in its own love of the b-movie style being showcased with many horror tropes being thrown about. It makes you feel a part of the joke, but every now and then you’re reminded that while someone may make you roll your eyes with a cheesy line, there’s a mystery to be solved and holy shit things are going insane on this little boat.
What matters is that The River is a show that is done well, and with an intent and purpose that makes it worthwhile to watch. The overarching mystery of what happened to Emmet Cole is engaging, and it’d be tolerable to watch that story alone. Although there are enough crime procedurals on TV that this would get lost in the mix. But throw in some Amazonian folklore, strange creatures, and it becomes clear that there is indeed magic out there. The question is whether or not you’re willing to face the magic. The first hours spent on the river make me eagerly anticipate what waits around the next bend.
The River premieres Tuesday, February 7 at 9:00pm ET on ABC.