In the primetime TV landscape, the usual program options have become increasingly formulaic, predictable and safe. With more than half of all network dramas being variations on the crime procedural, something that bucks the trend really has the potential to stand out. Even riskier is trying to adapt a horror offering within the strictures of regular TV in an era when audiences seem to clamor for more explicit and graphic thrills (see FX's delightfully loopy and crazed American Horror Story for something that really pushes the boundaries of conventional fare as it has much more freedom on cable). So I commend ABC executives for greenlighting the interesting eight-part experiment by filmmaker Oren Peli (who made a name for himself with Paranormal Activity). He shares the creator credit for this show with Michael R. Perry (he was also a writer on Paranormal Activity 2), a TV veteran who has dabbled in the horror genre before penning episodes of the underrated and short-lived "American Gothic" and Chris Carter's "X Files" follow-up "Millennium." While not always perfect, therefore, "The River" certainly has the distinction of feeling different and that's undeniably a good thing.
The idea behind "The River" is a good one. Bruce Greenwood plays a popular TV naturist who disappears while on an expedition in the Brazilian wilds. He and his crew are presumed dead. His wife (Leslie Hope) and estranged son (Joe Anderson) put together another documentary crew in an effort to find, and hopefully rescue, the missing men. Trying to piece together what happened through found footage, this new team faces increasingly strange and deadly obstacles the deeper they go. And it becomes abundantly clear that this voyage will have a body count as they seem to be pursuing a location known ominously as the Source. Will it hold the answers they desire? Is Greenwood alive? And will all the random horror elements be pulled together to make sense within a greater plot overview?
Setting: For me, the best thing about "The River" is its unusual premise. ABC was so quick to try to brand this the next "Lost" that it overlooked that the two shows have very little common ground. The unexplored jungles and the claustrophobic confines of the river boat lend an unusual backdrop to the unfolding drama. Also, it just looks great.
Style: While the found footage genre has been a bit overworked since the "Blair Witch Project" confirmed its commercial viability, it is effective and different to see it employed in series television. As the horrors are unraveled through quick and random camera shots (either through the crew cameramen or through stationary cameras on the ship), the quick glimpses of danger can make things quite unsettling.
Poor Research: For a show that takes place in Brazil, someone might have noted that they speak Portuguese there as opposed to Spanish. Conveniently, everyone they meet on this jungle excursion into Brazil speaks English or Spanish so don't worry about language barriers!
Ambient Sound: When strange things are happening, the program ramps up the sound effects and music to overwhelming proportions. Call me crazy, but I'd rather the dialogue was louder than the lapping of waves while characters in the river are conversing.
Rushed Beginning: The show takes but a few minutes to establish the characters before setting them adrift. It takes a while before we know anyone, much less care about them, and this lessens the impact of the earlier episodes. Stick around, though, things get better.
Horrors: The show aims for creepy more than scary, and that it achieves. Network TV is not a great place for in-your-face monstrosities, and within those limitations, the format does a good job providing some jolts. But our crew experiences such a diverse collection of nightmares, it seems like the creators just wanted to throw everything but the kitchen sink at us and see what stuck. Monsters, possessions, spirits, curses, natives: the mysterious and mystical horrors encompass just about everything you can think of. It's almost too much. And, of course, the mechanic's daughter is the requisite character that seems to know ANYTHING and EVERYTHING about these supernatural occurrences so that they can be "logically" explained to the TV audience.
Hit or Miss Ending: The 7th episode explains Greenwood's fate, but raises more questions than it answers. The screenplay and the characters are content to let most things go down without much contemplation. I did, however, like the finale's (8th episode) turn of events before the take-it-or-leave-it final scene.
I know people that both love "The River" and hate it. I can fully understand either position. But taken for what it is, it provides something different on television and that is an invaluable commodity in the land of cookie-cutter TV. At eight episodes, it isn't a huge time commitment and I was pleased enough to go along for the ride. I don't know that ten years from now that I'll be remembering the show as a classic, but for the moment--it was something that I enjoyed and would recommend for the right audience. About 3 1/2 stars. KGHarris, 3/12.