The monsters and dolls of The River

The River premiered this past Tuesday on ABC with a two-part opening episode.

The show depicts the story of a team of explorers searching an unmapped segment of the Amazon for a missing explorer, Emmet Cole, and his crew. The only clues they have as to Cole’s location are some tapes the team recorded as they searched for ‘The Source’ somewhere in the dark, mysterious jungle.

However, the tapes are out of order, and they have no real way of knowing where he was led. Clearly, there are supernatural things going on here. This particular stretch of the jungle is host to ghosts, spirits, and magic that only one member of the team, the engineer’s daughter, has any understanding of at all.

Leading the mission is the explorer’s wife and son, who were left behind for the original mission, for reasons they still don’t understand.

In fact, nearly every member of the search team once served aboard the explorer’s ship, the Magus, and were all, for one reason or another, left behind for the last mission.

It looks like the format here will be monster-of-the-week style, where the team will visit a new part of the unexplored wilderness in each episode, fighting off a new supernatural phenomenon every week.

The visual format is a bit strange, and I must admit, I’m still having trouble figuring out exactly what it’s supposed to be. It looks on the surface like it’s being presented as a ghost hunter style reality show, with every shot being from one of the cameras in the hands of the crew or mounted around the ship, but, at the same time, there are a lot of shots that no good editor would have ever put into a genuine reality show, including production discussions, poor shots, and instructions from the show’s producer, who would, in a real production, remain completely off camera, while here, he’s a primary character.

This odd direction and mix of shot styles is a major distraction from the show. At several points there were key moments where I would have enjoyed the scene a lot more if I wasn’t so distracted by the curious editing, especially since much of it was gratuitous, like the director has gone out of his way to lampshade several fake production issues which did not actually need lampshades. 

For example, in one scene near the beginning of the second episode, the group is trekking through the jungle, so we see (from the camera’s point of view) the camera-operator run ahead of the group, and set the camera in the grass where he could watch them all walk by. Then, we get a shot of the group walking past the grass, and finally hear the producer remind the camera guy to pick the it back up. The next scene was lost to me because all I could think of was “Why would the editor include more than just the shot of the group walking past the grass?” Each episode had a dozen scenes which were cut this way.

I admit that I might be nitpicking at this point, but I think the show would work better if it was simply filmed traditionally. At least so far, the shaky-cam style doesn’t seem to be adding anything to the story.

That story itself is interesting. I can’t say I’m fully engaged, at least not yet, but I’ll give it a couple more episodes before I write it off. My biggest worry was that the show would rely too much on startle moments to get the desired creepiness, but the startles are few and far between (basically, the ones in the trailer are all you get) and the show manages a sufficient creepy factor despite them.

If you’re into creepy, and don’t mind the constant shaky-cam, you should check it out what you missed over on Hulu, which already has the double episode premiere up for viewing, otherwise, give this one a pass until further notice.