While I wouldn’t describe “The River,” which airs Tuesdays at 9pm on ABC, as a particularly good show — and its wan ratings indicate that most people feel the same way — it’s a great guilty pleasure thanks to the strange contortions it has to go through to keep up its found-footage premise.
“The River” was created by Oren Peli, the writer/director of low-budget phenom “Paranormal Activity,” and like that film it presents itself as an allegedly true mix of the paranormal and the mundane shot on surveillance cameras and manned ones. And like that film, it raises the questions that tend come up in this horror subgenre — why are these people sticking around through all of this supernatural scariness? and why do they keep filming through it? — but then instead of killing off its characters or sending them off the grips of demonic possession it keeps going, episode after episode, until these issues no longer seem like plot holes and instead are more like proof of some shared psychosis.
The series follows the wife (Leslie Hope), grown son (Joe Anderson) and crew of Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood), the beloved explorer hostof a nature program entitled “The Undiscovered Country” as they travel in search of him after he goes missing in the Amazon. Lost for months, he’s been considered dead until his emergency beacon suddenly goes off. The network that carried Cole’s show is funding the rescue mission in hopes of making reality programming out of it, though it seems likely that if they find anything, it’s going to be a corpse.
“This is the footage they left behind,” the start of each episode warns of its gathering of would-be adventurers and what follows is meant to be edited together from what was grainily recorded by the cameras mounted around The Magus, the ship on which they’re traveling, and what was shot by a shifting series of cameramen.
“The River” is strikingly close to the formula Peli used to such success in “Paranormal Activity” — timestamps like “Day 22” and “6:20am” periodically appear on screen, we flick between different cameras (some using night vision) poised over different parts of the ship and often showing nothing spooky at all, and shots are set up so that negative space yawns ominously behind characters as they, say, focus on watching a video feed, oblivious.
Scares often build from simple starts, like the eyes on a doll suddenly flipping shut, and the monsters (there’s a new one each week) are rarely glimpsed in full onscreen. “The River” cuts in older footage for backstory, and in addition to watching video feeds of their own shooting, they have a backlog of Cole’s tapes they search through for clues.
A show like “The Office” is able to keep using the illusion of nonfiction because its conflicts and dramas are relatively normal and can unfold believably in front of its theoretical documentary crew, even if they’ve now been sticking around for a “Hoop Dreams”-worthy length of time. But “The River” is horror, and each new installment builds to some shrieky climax, and then returns to normal by the start of the next one. A crewmember dies in the first episode, which you’d think would give the others cause for concern, if only for what it might do to the production’s insurance costs, but they keep noodling along, more determined than ever.
In the second episode a ghost almost pulls someone into an early grave, which if not enough to send everyone packing in the least should have sent the snide producer into a tizzy, looking for a way to send the shots back to his editor somewhere in the States. In the fourth they find someone hanging from a tree who’s been suspended for months between life and death thanks to a curse, and hire him to be the secondary cameraman.
Unless the show is actually a scathing satire of ruthless reality TV pretending to be scary, it makes a hilarious argument for how difficult, if not impossible, a found footage take on an episodic show like this actually is. The format has its advantages, but in this case grows ever more ridiculous as it goes along. If this is found footage, why not just cut to the end, instead of including all this filler about family members bickering and scenes of someone playing the accordion? What kind of terrible fake editor did they hire?