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TV Tonight: The River

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Leslie Hope, as Tess, goes into the heart of darkness, Amazon-style.

There’s a school of thought that says the scariest thing in a horror movie (or TV show) is the thing you can’t see. Another approach is to scare the hell out of the audience with images they can see–the more imaginatively horrific, the better.

You get plenty of both in The River (two-hour premiere 9 p.m. ET Tuesday), ABC’s mockumentary/shockumentary trip from hell (or rather, into hell) on the Amazon. But scariest of all are the things you can barely see: a flash of motion at the periphery, a glimpse of the unknown in a shaky camera frame, a pair of eyes opening in the murky background.

It’s the kind of did-I-just-see-what-I-thought-I-saw visual storytelling that marked the movie Paranormal Activity, whose maker, Oren Peli, executive produces The River. Horror is a tough genre to pull off on TV (though The Walking Dead and American Horror Story have managed lately), partly because of the scale of the screen, partly because of the challenge of maintaining tension on a weekly basis. But using the techniques of faux-documentary filmmaking to “capture” a search for black magic in the rainforest turns out to be an ingenious way of solving the problem. Even as fiction, it turns out, there’s nothing scarier than reality TV.

And The River is all about TV. The pilot introduces us, through “archival” footage, to Dr. Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood), host of The Undiscovered Country, an Animal Planet-style family nature show that was a fixture for years–with the catchphrase “There’s magic out there!”–until Emmet becomes obsessed with stories of real magic deep in the Amazon and goes missing. His network agrees to fund a search for him, with a catch: it has to include his wife Tess (24’s Leslie Hope) and his estranged son Lincoln (Joe Anderson), whom America knows as Emmet’s co-stars. And the whole thing must be caught on video. The entire series of The River purports to be found footage from the expedition.

What sounds like a typical search-and-rescue, with some made-for-reality-TV family drama (workaholic Emmet was a less ideal dad and husband off-camera), quickly becomes an eerie quest into Emmet’s obsession. Video clips discovered in the visually arresting pilot find a zealous Emmet engaging in tribal rituals–with flashes of possibly supernatural occurences–and pressing on into an increasingly hostile region “off the map.” As Tess, Lincoln and crew–some of whom have their own agendas–follow the trail, the gorgeous rainforest begins to look like something far less than paradise. (“The undiscovered country,” after all, was what Hamlet called death.)

The show’s vibe is a bit like a stripped-down Lost, if the show were entirely about the search for the smoke monster. Surprisingly, and to the show’s credit, this new ABC drama doesn’t shy away from the Lost overtones, though the structure and scope is necessarily more limited. The River’s adventure is literally linear–a progression down a waterway–and the eight-episode season feels focused toward an end rather than sprawling and growing in every direction.

The episode structure, too, makes the series simpler to follow, though often–in an entertaining, laugh-while-screaming kind of way–tense to watch. The drama is unabashedly serial (the object, to find both Emmet and what he was seeking), but it breaks down into a story per episode, as the expedition encounters a different gothic myth of the river each week. (Starting, in the pilot, with the “corpo seco,” a sort of vampiric spirit of Brazilian folklore.) It’s not an anthology so much as a dark, linear quest, like Frodo encountering obstacle after monster on the way to Mordor.

The River is a highly unrealistic story shot in hyperrealistic style, which is the source of its strengths and some problems. Unlike other TV mockumentaries (The Office, Modern Family), the cameras and crew are central to the story. It delves into the history and motives of abrasive producer Clark (Paul Blackthorne) and has dry fun with the omnipresence of the unblinking eye. (Undercutting a tender moment at the end of the pilot, Tess waits a beat and tells Lincoln, You know there’s a camera right there.”) The crew also have stories of their own, including one of Emmet’s cameramen, vanished along with the host, whose daughter Lena (Eloise Mumford) joins the search.

And there’s a special kind of claustrophobic terror to knowing that something can burst onto the screen just outside the edge of your vision, as the handheld cameras whirl to catch up. (It also, presumably, makes the special effects easier and yet more effective, since many of the Big Bads in The River, at least early on, are barely seen.) This is a TV show with many threads, though, and sometimes it stretches believability that cameras could catch every necessary intimate moment–or, at one point late in the season, that a character supposedly alone in the forest could capture a certain scene from multiple camera angles.

More often I was able to forget these implausibilities because the images are so strong and chilling–parents, you will want to hide your children’s dolls after episode 2 of the two-hour premiere–and because of the relentless plot, which over the eight-episode season borrows from just about every element of horror that’s been done for TV. (There’s a little X-Files, a little Twilight Zone and a little Carnivale alongside the obvious Lost overtones.) A solid chunk of my notes consists of basically variations of “JESUS F CHRIST” in all caps.

Does it all become ridiculous? Especially toward the end of the season, it becomes massively, impressively ridiculous. But it’s never boring. (And there are hints of a larger mythology that might carry The River forward, if it outlives its first season.)

A few performances and characterizations, unfortunately, are distracting in a less entertaining way. The locals and Latin American crew are exoticized, especially the riverboat captain’s daughter Jahel (Paulina Gait├ín), who seems to exist solely to make eerie pronouncements about the spook of the week in Spanish. (Yes, Spanish, although the series is set in Portuguese-speaking Brazil.)

But the bigger liability is Anderson as Lincoln, who’s supposed to be the show’s emotional lynchpin but who comes across whiny and pouty. Leslie Hope balances him, making Tess’s conflicted emotions (she and Emmet had been on the rocks before his disappearance) credible in some incredible circumstances, but Anderson has to carry more of the story.

The show works anyway, mostly because the editing and the freaky images are the real stars. The mockumentary framework manages to use “archival” footage and flashbacks to Emmet’s Undiscovered Country show artfully to fill in background and character psychology, suggesting that in the digital era–especially for these characters, who have lived their lives on camera–video has taken the place of memory.

Ultimately, The River is not a deep character study or a philosophical investigation. But it is the kind of thing that big-network TV can still pull off nowadays: a suspenseful, hurtling water ride of a TV show. And it arrives with one hell of a splash.