Rivers are inherently frightening things. If you’re not being Jeff Buckley’d or Ned Beatty’d (drowned and raped, respectively), you’re encountering catfish-punching rednecks, Mexican picnics and hill-people on homemade watercraft. Rivers—especially around these parts—are muddy, murky affairs, perfect for getting attacked by unseen, underwater beasts like the alligator gar, or inadvertently inner-tubing with the dismembered corpse of Prospect Corridor hookers.
Gone are the days of pursuing a Twain-ian river adventure, where one listlessly rafts down a scenic bloom of natural beauty. No longer is one liable to stumble through the thicket to find a kick-ass Alan Jackson river party, replete with plastic cups of Budweiser and bikini clad temptresses grilling Oscar Mayer hot-dogs. Today’s local streams have much more in common with their seedy South American counterparts.
The Amazon is the world’s longest river, running 4,000 miles from Peru to Brazil—coast to coast, in other words—and, during the wet season, can stretch to 30 miles wide.
That’s fucking huge.
Couple this with flesh-eating piranhas, bull sharks, and the arapaima (at 15 ft, 440lbs, the world’s largest freshwater fish), and you’ve got yourself one terrifying, gigantic crick. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the head-shrinking, spear-throwing locals with the Dorothy Hamill haircuts and the hand-me-down Beavis and Butthead tee’s who are puzzled by your existence, and therefore, must kill you (I’ve seen enough Bugs Bunny to know that at some point, you’re liable to end up in a giant pot that natives coolly fill with carrots while you stress the fuck out).
Therefore, the Amazon River, with all of its quirky goodness, should make a fantastic setting for a new one-hour horror-drama on ABC, right? Eh, not so much.
The River—whose two-hour premier aired Tuesday (and was actually two regular episodes, played back-to-back in an effort to make you think you were watching something epic)—is about a group of mostly unlikable characters desperately driven to one of the scariest places on earth with one common goal—find Dr. Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood, Truman Capote’s main hump in the 2005 film).
Through a show-opening flashback, we learn that Cole was the popular host of “Undiscovered Country,” a travel program that found the doc and his family traversing the globe in his boat, Magus, forever searching for adventure and imploring viewers to remember that “there’s magic out there!”
Think Steve Irwin with less camp, or Jeff Corwin with less blatant homosexuality.
After he disappears, and all communication is lost, his wife, his son, a few camera guys, Dr. Cole’s old frienemy producer, a weird, totally under-developed commando character, the ship’s mechanic and mechanic’s daughter all set out to find the lost hero. It’s all being filmed, of course (or we wouldn’t have a show).
Everything that we see—aside from the previously mentioned flashback—is “found-footage”—a technique that, when done well can be effective (the pioneering Blair Witch)—but is all-too often used by lazy filmmakers and producers as a crutch to cover lackluster storytelling (side note: it’s also worth noting that there’s more than one scene in the “epic” two hour premier where the director apparently forgets that this is all supposed to be footage from cameramen or planted cameras– we see things that shouldn’t be seen without one of the characters filming it. Oops!).
Less-than ambitious writing and curious plot-development can be overlooked, however, with competent acting. This is a horror-show, after all, not a Dickensian offering meant to enrich our palates with slick prose. Unfortunately, The River fails in this regard as well, and miserably so.
There may be no greater offender than the explorer’s son, Lincoln, embarrassingly portrayed by Joe Anderson (sounds made up—I’d assume an alias, too). Watching Anderson—a British chap who was in Twilight: Part 2- A Wolf For Every Cupboard—is worse than getting your balls caught in a mall-escalator. There’s an uncomfortable weirdness watching a British actor play an American when the Brit can’t quite lose the accent—at times, the actor will sound slightly Australian, partially Kentuckian and a little like Jodi Foster with her patented clenched-jaw affectations. Anderson does all of this. It’s a distraction that’s hard to overlook.
Coupled with the character’s high-level of odiousness, you find yourself rooting for him to be attacked by one of the strange, blue horsefly-fairy-bugs that mouth-raped the ship mechanic’s daughter (and gave her the voice of the missing? deceased? explorer… yeah, you can go back and re-read that last part. I probably wouldn’t believe it either, unless I watched it).
Nobody else on the cast fares much better. Though some of the players are respectable enough (television vet Paul Blackthorne [24, Lipstick Jungle] as the producer is… adequate), creator Oren Peli (writer/director of Paranormal Activity—go figure) mostly has a shitpile on his hands.
For everything that The River does right—the cinematography is cool?—there are a million things that it does wrong. For Exhibit A, please see the graveyard tree filled with soiled, animated baby-dolls.
I’d love nothing more than to see a show like this flourish on primetime television. The horror genre is a personal favorite of mine, but unless the terror comes primarily from deep, psychological mind-fuckery (FX’s American Horror Story), it doesn’t often translate well to the small screen. With my impacted assfull of negativity aside, I’m going to give the River one more shot to impress me. Perhaps this stems from my inability to climax unless I’m being repeatedly stabbed in the chest with a crocheting needle; perhaps, however, it’s just because I believe in giving new things a fair shake.
If they don’t have it after episode three, though, I’m making like an Italian cruise ship captain and rushing for the lifeboat, cripples and children be damned.
The River airs Tuesday, 8pm CT on ABC. The first two episodes can be viewed for free at ABC.com.