With the success of American Horror Story on FX get ready for everyone to try to concoct a horror show of their own. First up, ABC's The River. Sorry, guys, it's just not going to work.
The River was co-created by Oren Peli, who wrote and directed Paranormal Activity. It uses that movie's "found footage" trope where everything the audience sees is from a camera that is on the site. In this case it's not a house that may be haunted, but on an Amazon river expedition of terror. It's a three hour tour, but Gilligan is already dead. Or missing. The show follows the crew of a ship on the hunt for a missing nature show host (think the Crocodile Hunter except without the accent and possibly not dead). On the boat is his estranged wife and son, a producer, an evil security guy, a mechanic, his creepy daughter, and a handful of camera men. Their boat also seems to have cameras covering every square inch of it (it was the boat used for filming the nature show, of course) so we really get to see every angle.
The thing about Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project before it is that they are horror movies that really have nothing to do with the supernatural. They have to do with home invasion and being lost in nature and the crazy tricks that your mind plays on you when those things collide with an idea of ghosts and ghouls and goblins. Spoiler alert: in both cases, the terror is all psychological, not phantasmagorical. What makes both of those movies scary is that they could happen to just about anyone. That's not the case on The River. In the two hour premiere last night, the crew faced off against a blood sucking flying soul creature and a river spirit that has a thing for dolls. These are not things that could happen to you or me.
The show wants us to believe, just like Lost did, that magic is very real. Given the success of Lost (up until the shitty end) that can be a very successful strategy (look at the gangbusters Once Upon a Time). The problem is that belief doesn't mesh well with the gimmick of found footage. It divorces the concept from the very reality it is meant to convey. I'm not going to go out on the Amazon, I'm not going to deal with a crazy tree full of doll heads (though there is something similar on Fire Island, and like the one on The River, it's more campy than terrifying).
That's why all of these cameras get very annoying very fast. Aside from obfuscating the real action and keeping the viewers from seeing things the actors see, the show also has to go through the extra added work of always explaining where the shots are coming from. They can't just go out into the jungle, they have to take the camera men, show where the cameras are set up. The exposition becomes not about plot, but technique. Nothing is more boring than that.
What made American Horror Story so successful is that before you even set your DVR, you know what you're signing up for. It's right there in the title. It is a horror show, and because of that we're willing to learn about the crazy supernatural rules that govern this alternative universe—where rubber suited men rape your wife and dead gay men fiendishly redecorate your rooms. And it's on cable, so it can get away with the gratuitous nudity and violence that everyone wants to see when they tune in. It is carnal, in all respects of the word.
The River, with its documentary approach and network decency, wants you to think this is real life. Sorry, everyone in the universe, but ghosts aren't real. At least not ones that live in dragonflies that will posses you if they crawl in your mouth (yes, that really happened). In the post-Lost world, much has been made about audiences not wanting to invest in mystery shows so The River has the over-arching mystery of the missing host, but also a monster-of-the-week set up. And they're trying to build characters. And they have a duplicitous security guy. And people are dying. It's just too much going on. With so much to do, The River feels leaden, bogged down in everything its trying to accomplish. The result isn't really scary at all. It's just a bit silly.