Midseason Television: The River

I promised I would review the premiere episode, but in all truth I very little to say.  I liked it.  I’m interested in seeing where it will go.  It’s A LOT like Lost, down to the “monster” and literary references (Shakespeare, John Fowles).

Of course, the big draw for the show is also what might turn people off—the handheld, pseudo-documentary style, handled so well by Orin Peli in the first Paranormal Activity film, who serves as the creative force behind the series.  The film gives off the same mojo as Paranormal Activity, with a healthy dollop of The Serpent and the Rainbow thrown in (the Amazonian setting and spirit-world mumbo-jumbo) for good measure, and is pretty clever about how it uses the “found footage” to provide a sick, peek-a-boo thrill to what you see, what you thought you saw, and what you imagined.

It’s really only a few times in the pilot that I felt overly manipulated by where, why, and when a camera happened to catch the action, and those really occurred in quieter, more emotionally driven parts, parts that seemed a little too charged and private to occur in front of the camera.  I don’t know if that’s praise or not, because here is really where the show shines, which is the depiction of the search party and the characters therein, and Bruce Greenwood’s performance.  I feel that, at least in the pilot, the family is so believably desperate to find the missing father, and so likable, that it pains me to believe that they would allow a camera crew to follow them for the entire trek, even if it is the only way to fund the rescue attempt.

But maybe that’s a needless quibble—the disquiet any family raised on television, in a reality-television driven culture must feel is that of what to reveal and what to keep private, and the family on the show has, for better or worse, been in the public eye for twenty-five years.  It could, in fact, lead to some interesting dramatic moments.

But, like any film or television show of this genre—the “found-footage” thriller—there comes a time, as an audience member, when you want to scream “PUT THE FREAKING CAMERA DOWN AND RUN AWAY!”

So far, the show has been pretty sly about how and why they’re keeping the cameras rolling, but I feel like it’s going to become pretty tortured pretty soon.  Are we really to believe that they will be able to sustain a roaming camera crew for three or four seasons?  They are going to need to recharge batteries and fill up on gas.  Any suggestions?

So, I tuned in for the jumps, and they were there, and pretty effective as well.  However, I wasn’t expecting the level of performance and commitment the principals bring to the roles.  Bruce Greenwood, as the missing Dr. Emmett Cole is always reliable, and he brings the unhinged joy and mania of an unfettered and overfunded nature host.  Think an even nuttier Steve Irwin or Jeff Corwin (I hesitate to bring up Jack Hanna, as he is often as cool as the underside of the pillow even when getting shit on by giraffes) and you’re thee, except he stumbles upon a level of magic he’s unprepared to deal with.  I was not prepared for the performances of Joe Anderson and Leslie Hope, as Cole’s son and wife, and how they hit the ground with such well-wrought and lived-in depictions.  I also really enjoyed Paul Blackthorne as the seemingly unscrupulous and ambitious television producer.  It’s a slam-dunk cliché of a role, but he’s slimy and British and that’s good enough for me.

 

I’m not going to waste time on summary.  It’s a haunted house story in the Amazon.  The big question is whether or not people will tune in for an extended dose of the same kind of shenanigans worked over in the Paranormal Activity films.  I’m betting that they won’t, and here’s where film and television diverge.  As many people hated Paranormal Activity as liked hit, but you have to pay your money to have an opinion.  If ten million people pay 9 bucks to hate a movie, the movie’s still a hit.  If ten million people watch a show and love it, it’s a middle of the pack underachiever, not to mention they have to watch it and love it week-to-week.  A film can recoup costs in a weekend.  Television has to maintain viewership, which is much more difficult (ask Tim Kring about Heroes).  Film is more prestigious, but television is more popular.  It’s why Judd Apatow is a more successful filmmaker than he is a television producer.  The same people who watched Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared paid money to see The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up (nobody saw Funny People).  However, the shows were considered noble failures and the films were smashes.  Why?  Because it was the same 8 million people.  For film that’s good business.  In television it’s a train wreck.

I worry that there won’t be enough of an audience for this show, which would be too bad.  I think this could become something special, and I always value when television takes risks, even if it’s a calculated one.


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