A while back ago I mentioned Stephen King's wonderful meditation on horror "Danse Macabre." One interesting chapter was on why horror doesn't work well on TV. It can be boiled down to "commercials," and "managerial cowardice." It's hard to scare people when you have to break for toilet bowl cleaner commercial and it's even harder to scare people when the powers that be do not actually want their audience to be made uncomfortable. Because of this horror on TV when not horrid is not actually horror but tends toward a darker fantasy genre. Good examples of this are "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," and "The Night Stalker." Both use tropes from the horror genre but to a lighter more action filled use.
I mention this because "The River," has beaten the TV jinx using the type of scare I listed in my review of "Paranormal Activity 3." Not surprising since the people involved in that are involved in "The River," along with the deep pockets of Steven Speilberg. So, finally someone has brought the cheap scare to TV and it works. The cheap scare is one so centered on our biology and psychology that one cannot help but just and get a bit of fear juice going even if later we say "Boy, that was just dumb, why did that even scare me." Of course, that is going to be the cross this show is going to have bear. Can you build an entire series around cheap scares? It's like juggling chainsaws, sometime somewhere something's going drop.
Luckily, I think the powers behind "The River," are hip to their problems. First, they limited their first batch of episodes to eight. I think this is a wise number for a show who's conceit is that everything we are seeing is found footage. Also, and more importantly in the long run, the writing seems very sharp. It's not all cheap scares and there's a taste of "Lost" (in the best sense) that will keep the show going I think.
So, the basic plot is that once upon a time there was a naturalist who roamed the world putting it all on camera for a TV show that lasted 22 years. He also put his family on screen for much of those years which explains perhaps why the son, now grown, is a bit screwed up. Now it is six months after he mysterious disappeared somewhere in the Amazon. He's been declared dead but his wife isn't having that so she gathers her wayward son a bunch of folks who'll fund the expedition for juicy footage and a crew to handle both boats and trouble. Eventually they find the missing boat, but no one is on it. But there is a lot of secret footage showing some freaky stuff. Worse there is SOMETHING on the boat that's pretty nasty and very fast. The first hour lays out the stakes and there is a good bit of tension as they try to root out the unseen thing. After that, they realize there are clues that point the direction where to go. And thus the voyage continues.
I'll certainly watch the next six episodes. If nothing else it's a fascination experiment for serial television. I'd like more shows with a reasonable number of episodes rather than the idea that every show has to last five years.