From Paranormal Activity creator Oren Peli and Paranormal Activity 2 writer Michael R. Perry comes ABC’s The River – network television’s attempt at transitioning the popular found-footage theatrical genre to the small screen.
Centered around the disappearance of famed explorer Dr. Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood), The River follows Cole’s wife Tess (Leslie Hope) and his son Lincoln (Joe Anderson) as they attempt to locate the missing adventurer, with camera crew in tow. An emergency beacon, an abandoned ship, and a library of Cole’s archived videos begin to reveal the supernatural forces behind his disappearance.
But is ABC’s The River the Paranormal Activity-meets-Lost series that it positioned itself to be from the trailers?
Wrapped in the mystique of a mysterious jungle adventure with otherworldly forces, The River all-but-fails to lay the necessary foundation for audiences to care (or even want to care) about what’s occurring.
Instead of logically conveying some semblance of a backstory that would help drive audience intrigue until the series is able to further develop itself, The River relies on an unfortunate “trust us” approach, where information is slowly (and painfully) revealed, yet no additional narrative is provided.
While films like Paranormal Activity can thrive on simple premises shrouded in a 90-minute mystery/adventure, television series – especially in a post-Lost era – must often provide viewers with continual story-arcs, which logically tie everything together, all while the series propels forward.
That being said, even franchise film series in the vein of Paranormal Activity must begin to meet the demand of its audiences’ need to know more about the situation presented with each subsequent installment – a development that largely ends up being hit-or-miss (largely miss). But at the point where audiences begin to question the intellectual legitimacy of the ever-expanding story, the intrigue and interest that has carried over from original premise is still enough to make for an enjoyable experience. Sadly, The River is largely unable to present that same type of calculated formatting evolution for television - which isn’t necessarily the fault of the creators, but the difficulty of the television medium itself.
As The River attempts to win audiences over with its two-hour season premiere, the simple question of “Where is Dr. Emmet Cole?” becomes muddied by an endless string of supplemental questions and mysteries – all of which generally lead to a general feeling of “I don’t care.”
For all intents and purposes, The River asks its audiences to trust it like a familiar friend, instead of one you just met. However amazing or wonderful the end result of this series may be, there are few elements that make you want sit through whatever the creators have set up in order to reach that moment. While there’s nothing inherently wrong in Peli and Perry’s intentions to bring found-footage to network television, it’s hard to call their execution anything but messy.
From the faux filters used to imitate the look of security cameras, to the overly-shaky handheld camera work that was obviously added digitally, the lackluster storytelling that is contained within The River is made even more so by the visually appalling presentation.
With a cast of ever-dwindling actors that have generally proved themselves in other series, it’s safe to say that many of the underwhelming, emotionless performances are the result of the failures that stem from the overall production of the series itself, instead of any one actor. For example, there really isn’t any an actor that could have earnestly delivered the line “You know what, there is magic out there – so let’s go see it!” without it coming off as laughable (which it was).
Each character, whether main or supplemental, is generally depicted as nothing more than two-dimensional plot progressors who are simply waiting for the time when their character can reveal the secret information that they’ve known all along, but didn’t feel the need to say at the beginning. Again, while there’s nothing inherently wrong with having specific supplemental characters help develop the storyline, it should really only be used sparingly – and after the series has already established itself as a competent storytelling medium in its own right.
Ever since Lost came to an end, audiences have been wary of programming that asks for an emotional investment upfront, with promises of fruitful rewards later on. While pilot season after new pilot season brings varying shows trying to make use of this storytelling approach, it’s going to take a very special series to overcome whatever bad taste and/or viewer exhaustion still remains from Lost.
And at its core, The River is nowhere near that level of television quality – something ABC already knew. With the need to add the second episode to the series premiere (which wasn’t decided until recently) – not to mention a whole lot of tweaking and rewriting to the original pilot that was presented last May (which I viewed and compare to the aired pilot), it’s really hard to fault any one person for the series.
No, The River isn’t a great show. Yes, it does do many things wrongs. And yes, I’m sure ABC feels ridiculous about getting into a bidding war with NBC over this. But when you break everything down, The River could be best looked at as a television experiment.
Sure, the experiment wasn’t anywhere near as successful as one would have hoped it to be, but sometimes that’s just what happens. If there’s one positive thing to take from The River, it’s that the entirety of the television medium now knows the difficulties of bringing this genre of storytelling to their medium – even when it’s done by Oren Peli.
As more mid-season replacement series begin to premiere over the course of the coming months, viewers shouldn’t look at The River as a continuation of network television’s dreaded mid-season dump slots for series known to underperform. If anything, it should be the exception to the newly-formed rule of bringing great unique programming to a network television medium that asks for anything but.
And if you don’t believe that “unique” is the last thing network television wants, you can ask Lloyd Braun – the ABC executive that was fired for spending money to develop a silly little show called Lost.
The River airs Tuesdays @9pm on ABC
Follow Anthony on Twitter @anthonyocasio