TV Talk: THE RIVER 1.01 “Magus” and 1.02 “Marbeley” - Devin’s Take
I'm pretty late to talking about the first two episodes of The River, and Meredith did such a great job of it in her TV Talk entry, that I'm going to try and examine the bigger picture - namely how did they fuck this up so badly? And can they salvage it?
Make no mistake: The RIver is bad television. It's generic monster of the week stuff with bad characters, and it doesn't seem like it has a strong enough base to be an actual series. It's also hopelessly aping Lost. But there's a kernel of something in here, and I think it could be fixed.
First of all, the show within a show, Undiscovered Country, has a better title than the real show. If The River comes back for a second season, rebrand it. The River is simply a shitty title. Undiscovered Country is evocative. And a Shakespeare reference!
But more than that, The River uses the found footage conceit incorrectly. This conceit simply does not work on TV; the nature of found footage demands an immersion, and that immersion is ruined by commercial breaks. The gimmicks that worked in Paranormal Activity seem silly here - especially since they happen every single damn week. But rather than drop the found footage angle, the show must embrace it by transforming it into a recognizable format:
The show must be a faux-reality show. Embrace the whole format. Even go so far as to get a host to intro each episode, a Robert Stack-type. There were some 'confessional' sort of shots in the first episode, but I think the show should go larger with that. After all, the basic concept is that they are filming themselves on this quest, so do it EXACTLY as a reality show crew would do it. Look to Man vs Wild or Survivorman for some hints. I think that by having this familiar format - which seeks to confuse reality with narrative anyway - the scares will work bigger. They'll be more disruptive.
The show also needs to figure out some way to cut these people off more effectively. At the end of the first episode I couldn't understand why they didn't send the hundreds of hours of tapes back to the real world for better, and probably faster, analysis. They're searching after a guy who has been missing six months - surely a day back up the river to call in a helicopter wouldn't be such a big deal? The show has already firmly planted its feet on the side of the mystical, so just go with it - have the Magus and its crew cut off from civilization by some kind of a magical barrier, or have them transported into a strange alternate reality or something.
I don't know that these changes would quite make The River a great show - the casting and writing are currently getting in the way of that happening - but it would be more effective. At least it would be better. As it stands The River is DOA, an unwieldy mix of a mystery show with a found footage movie. At this rate there won't be a second season.