The River, the horror series debuting tonight on ABC, is the network's most highly praised new show, but I can't get on the boat just yet. Bearing in mind that every new series is a work in progress, and that what I saw in the first couple of episodes might not represent the totality of it, I'm moving it into the "too early to tell" column of my viewing log. It's reasonably clever and well acted and has strong atmosphere and a few good scares, and the concept — a found-footage voyage into the Amazon to locate a mysteriously MIA scientist — is catchy. But the format of the show may prove a dealbreaker for me. It's not the style per se that's a problem, it's what the show doesn't do with it.
The River is a horror mockumentary, a burgeoning subgenre that has racked up plenty of examples in the past decade-plus, starting with 1999's surprise hit The Blair Witch Project and continuing with the likes of Cloverfield, Diary of the Dead, and the Rec films. All those movies had both effective and cheesy moments, but what separated the wheat from the chaff was the fimmakers' willingness to play fair with the format and present the material in a way that made sense given the presumption that this is "reality." And that's what ultimately sinks The River, a drama from Oren Peli, who brought us the "found footage" horror film Paranormal Activity: The format feels more gimmicky than revelatory.
Tess (Leslie Hope) takes her son Lincoln (Joe Anderson) and a support crew into the Amazon to find her husband, beloved TV host Emmett Cole (Bruce Greenwood), who disappeared mysteriously.* In theory, when we watch The River we're looking at a TV production — a documentary record of something that actually happened to actual human beings in an actual place. And the show is indeed shot like a series of real events, switching between two documentary cameras, surveillance cameras installed on the boat, and spy cameras placed in the jungle wherever the heroes happen to be. When we watch The River, we're presumably seeing a record of that rescue trip edited after-the-fact. But it's edited just like any other non-mockumentary horror film, and the visual grammar is no different that what you'd see in a typical schlock horror movie or weekly TV series. People stand in close-up, frame left or right, in front of a background crammed with spooky stuff, and then something spooky happens behind them, and we're supposed to think, "Oh my GOD, something SPOOKY just happened in the frame behind them! This is so scary! What an innovative and amazing show!" Or the crew is wandering through the jungle and one of them gets grabbed by the ankles by some unknown creature or force, and suddenly the camera starts shaking all over the place, and we're supposed to yell, "Oh my GOD, what's HAPPENING?!?!?" at which point the show cuts to a commercial just like any other TV series would.
Ideally, the mockumentary style should open The River to fresh (if not exactly innovative) storytelling techniques, and allow the series to show you things that you wouldn't normally see, or at least present them in a surprising way. But in The River, what's onscreen looks like a stylistically tricked-out Lost, but with superstitious Latin Americans who are mainly there to make terrified exclamations in Spanish. We're still watching squabbling characters try to get to the bottom of a scary and obviously complex mystery in a tropical setting, but this time there are fuzzy "video" lines across some of the footage and time and date stamps in the corners of the frame.
I realize that what I'm fixating on here is a very rarified refrigerator logic issue, and that bringing it up exposes me to charges that I'm drastically overthinking escapism — and hey, maybe I am. But I do think that style matters, and that it can undermine substance when poorly applied. Really, now: If you had video footage of, say, an inanimate object suddenly coming to life, or a mysterious act of violence befalling your main characters, and everything transpiring onscreen was real, would you abruptly cut away from the big moment, or linger on it, tease it out with slow-motion or a freeze frame, and maybe zoom in to pick on the exact moment when that creepy doll hanging from that tree suddenly, um ... Well, I won't give it away here because it is pretty scary. I guess if you were a scumbag reality show producer with no conscience whatsoever, somebody who treated real discomfort, misery, and fright as so much TV fodder, you might cut a found-footage series this way, to hold viewers in suspense and keep them coming 'round for more. But on the other hand, if this stuff really did happen in the era of CNN and Twitter and YouTube, would there be any suspense to protect via clever editing? And whether the hypothetical viewers did or didn't know the "plot" going into the series, wouldn't you think the producers would adopt a rubbernecking approach and try to exploit every unsettling or violent event to the hilt rather than hiring somebody to cut it as it were Rosemary's Baby or some other horror film made with actors and a screenplay?
Okay, enough semiotic nitpicking. I don't know where this show is going, much less who's responsible for the edited version of the expedition's video that we're presumably all watching on our TV sets long after the fact. The River is a show that I'll be checking back on periodically, and if it allays my concerns, I'll say so, then eat a slice of humble pie. It has plenty of good points, including a competent-to-strong cast (including Thomas Kretschmann as a mercenary guarding the Coles) and terrific sound design. For now, to invoke The X Files, I'm more a skeptic than a believer.
* This post has been edited to remove the name of a misidentified boat. That is the third most common error in reviews of shows about rivers, according to our ombudsman, Captain Ron.