Last night ABC premiered their new found footage (such a popular form these days) horror-thriller The River, a trip into an Amazonian heart of darkness that should be roundly praised for its ambition, though still viewed with a healthy amount of skepticism. It's a fun premise, but can it ultimately work?
The setup is perfectly spooky: A TV nature explorer with the too-sinister name of Emmet Cole goes missing in the Amazon jungle while filming one of his specials. So his wife and grown son enlist the financial help of a sleazy producer to head out onto the river in search of him, convinced this lover and champion of nature surely can't have been killed by it. The TV producer brings a camera crew, and that's the lens through which we see most of the action. (Cole's boat, found within the first hour, also has fixed cameras that show us things not caught by the crew.) Of course the expedition quickly runs into trouble; after finding footage of Cole in some sort of tribal shaman trance they are attacked by some unknown, tree-snapping, Lost-like force. "There's magic out there" was Cole's signature tagline on his show, and indeed there does seem to be magic lurking in the dark. Bad magic. So we get a little Lost City of Z mixed with Indiana Jones and The Blair Witch Project here. It's a tasty soup of tropes and themes, and we're genuinely curious to see where it all ends up. Though, we're cautious too.
Burned by the unsatisfying conclusions of previous mystery serials like The X-Files (a serial at least in its latter years) and Lost, we're a bit unsure how much we're willing to invest in this new creepy head-scratcher. Unknown entity bloodily tossing people about the boat deck? Sure. Creepy babydoll hanging from a vine only to suddenly open its eyes and turn its head? Not so sure. ABC has only ordered eight episodes of this series, so maybe there's a tidy already-thought-out conclusion awaiting us, though network TV has yet to (re-)embrace the miniseries, so it doesn't seem that likely that The River will just up and end in two months if it's a hit. It's problematic enough that the show has set up what promises to be a deeply paranormal mystery, so to add the extra element of having this all conveniently captured on video camera could begin to strain, if not credibility, at least the strength of the show's narrative fiber. It's the Amazon jungle! Won't they run out of battery power soon? Mightn't the cameras break, what with all that invisible monster thrashing? Maybe the show has some canny ways of dealing with these problems, but we didn't see anything in last night's two-hour premiere that hinted at them.
But, with a fear of the unknowable future aside, last night's show was effective and, despite a few overcooked moments, craftily put together. It's encouraging to see the television landscape increasingly dotted with experiments in genre and style like this, so if nothing else we hope this show is at least successful enough to encourage further exploration. One would assume that the success of FX's American Horror Story (coupled with the exciting announcement that the plan is for a single-season anthology series rather than one continuous story) has spurred ABC to make a real investment in The River. It's by no means perfect television, and could easily (and quickly) devolve into nonsense, but you have to at least respect the effort, and hope that this is the start, rather than the premature end, of television's next big adventure.