TV Talk: THE RIVER 1.01 “Magus” and 1.02 “Marbeley”

Oren Peli's found footage series is a lot of things, but mostly it's annoying. 

Everything about this promo shot hurts my eyeballs.

ABC aired the first two episodes of Oren Peli's found footage series The River last night, and the show is irritating beyond measure. I really want to like it - it's created by Paranormal Activity's Oren Peli and Dead Zone's Michael R. Perry, with episodes directed by Orphan's Jaume Collet-Serra. That's some decently legitimate genre cred, and frankly, I reserve the right to eagerly anticipate every single horror television show I hear about until I watch them and find myself inevitably disappointed. But The River was extraordinarily disappointing - messy and pointless and unforgivably dull. Collet-Serra directed both episodes, and I'm surprised. I love Orphan more than is potentially reasonable, but the quality of "Magus" and "Marbeley" are more House of Wax than Esther. 

The River is about the search for Dr. Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood), the host of the 22-year-running nature show The Undiscovered Country. Six months ago, he disappeared, and the official search has been called off, with Cole declared legally dead. His wife Tess (Leslie Hope) and son Lincoln (Joe Anderson) embark on a quest into the Amazon with Cole's former television crew who are funding the search - only with the understanding that all footage will be aired later in some sleazy reality television special. At least the show quickly establishes a reason for the found footage: first, from the camera crew who are filming the search for Cole, and second, because once they discover Cole's old ship The Magus, it's fully decked out with an editing bay and cameras capturing every angle for the purposes of recording The Undiscovered Country

Cole's catch phrase on The Undiscovered Country was "There's magic out there," so you can imagine how many times that phrase is used poignantly or ironically by characters throughout the pilot. Many, many times, just in case you can't imagine. I've got my drinking game all set up for this show, and christ, I'm gonna need it.

Tess and Lincoln work with shady British television producer Clark Quietly (Paul Blackthorne and also really? Clark Quietly?), security officer Captain Kurt Brynildson (a super hot German named Thomas Kretschmann who is genuinely the only point of interest in this show for me), AJ the cameraman (Shaun Parkes) and the daughter of another missing member of Cole's crew, Lena Landry (Eloise Mumford), who serves as a love interest for Lincoln. Also on board are a Spanish-speaking mechanic, Emilio (the great character actor Daniel Zacapa) and his daughter Jahel (Paulina Gaitan), who quite fortunately turn out to be mysterious South American mystics somehow synergetic with all supernatural phenomena, mostly because they are not white. They're still just mechanics, mind you, but they are ghost whispering mechanics. 

The group tracks down Cole's old ship in the Amazon River after following the signal from his personal beacon, and there they discover a bunch of his hidden tapes, so this is a sort of found footage inside of a found footage device that is laborious at best. There are ghosts that look a whole hell of a lot like smoke monsters, and there is some sort of voodoo shrine meant to entrap the Corpo-Seco (this according to our resident South American Expert of The Mystical), welded inside a panic room that the idiots of course instantly release. That's all in the first episode. In the second, there's a toy-collecting ghost jungle child who is the subject of a conveniently familiar Amazonian legend, and there is a monkey wearing a doll's head that is supposed to be terrifying but is ultimately hilarious and adorable.

Have I lost you yet? I just cannot care about any of this. It's not scary, it's not compelling, it's not coherent. The found footage conceit only barely works in cinema and does not work in the slightest as a television series. Yes, the creators have established the motive for the found footage, but the digitally added shakiness and crappy security camera filters, the drawn out mystery and lack of cohesive narrative are downright disastrous in serial format. And of course the show wants to play it both ways, panning back and forth between close-ups of the actors' faces as they have dramatic conversations in a way that could never be captured on actual documentary footage. The show also makes the grave mistake of flashing back to something that happened earlier in the episode, a gimmick that I have always found especially infuriating.The "horrific' sequences are nothing you haven't seen before - cameras jostling through branches, tight shots of petrified, overlit faces, lots of confused yelling and shaking and nothing scary whatsoever, mostly because it's impossible to discern what the hell is happening. 

Some of which I could forgive if the acting or dialogue were better, but it's all tragic. The big line at the end of the pilot - every pilot has one, you know, like "I grabbed a spoon" - is seriously: "You know what, there is magic out there. So let's go see it." Insufferable corniness and lack of catchy rhythm aside, this line is made all the more preposterous because Lincoln says it, after an hour of arguing against the risky quest only to turn on a dime when it becomes more dangerous. We also get Tess screaming at the sky "What do you WANT from us?!" to an unnamed spirit, so that's another drinking game rule crossed off with a quickness.

I have to ask myself why I am somewhat more forgiving of Alcatraz, the other Lost rip-off premiering this season, and I can only assume it's due to the difference in aesthetic value, and also because I actively dislike nearly every character on The River. I merely feel pleasantly ambivalent toward the characters on Alcatraz. (Except Robert Forster, obviously. He is amazing.)  Lincoln is presumably the protagonist, and he's an absolute charisma suck, just a black hole of boring. His voice and accent are so flat and grating; one assumes this is because he's hiding his British accent, but I must also conclude that he simply hates the material, because Joe Anderson is a decent actor. The character mostly suffers from the desperately evident attempts to make him look and act just like Sawyer. He's got Sawyer's haircut and scruff and grouchiness, but homeboy is definitely NOT Sawyer. 

I began to list what I dislike about every other character here, but essentially, they're all awful - except, of course, for the South American Experts of the Mystical. They are obviously wise and kind, because they are not white. I do like what I've seen of Emmet Cole. Bruce Greenwood is always great, and through the documentary footage and secret tapes, he's managed to make me care a tiny bit about whether the crew finds him, but I simply cannot care about anything else on this show. Many secrets were alluded to and I'm sure they'll be addressed, but I just don't care. Only two episodes in, I feel qualified to say that The River, while an audacious endeavor, is ultimately a failure.

I know there are going to be plenty of you who disagree with me, particularly because of my (relative) preference for Alcatraz, so let's hear it in the comments. And Devin, what did you think? Do you have more patience with this show than I? 

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