There’s paranormal, and then there’s para-puhleeez. The line between those two can be quite fine, especially when results vary from viewer to viewer.
“The River,” which premieres on ABC on Tuesday night, leaps back and forth from frightening to ridiculous so often that it might as well be performing double-Dutch jump rope. It’s a drama about a film crew that goes in search of missing nature/adventure TV show host Dr. Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood), who was last seen shooting episodes of his docu-series, “The Undiscovered Country,” in remote tributaries of the Amazon River. He was presumed dead — until his GPS locator started beeping out a distress signal.
Led by Cole’s obsessive wife (Leslie Hope) and his angry, estranged son (the Kevin Bacon-esque Joe Anderson), the crew diverts off the Amazon and into the dreaded “Boiuna,” a serpentine maze of spooky waterways. The goal is to make a new reality show about the family’s hunt for the celebrity explorer.
Most of the crew wear that “Alien” look of doomed auxiliary characters, yet they continue deep into the Boiuna, even as the requisite clairvoyant child (Paulina Gaitan) begs everyone to turn the heck around. Hopes are raised when they locate the Magus, Dr. Cole’s trusty ship, moored in a viney tangle. Lured by a banging sound from a below-decks panic room, they unwittingly open the door and set free a bloodsucking ghost known as a “corpo seco.” Now they’re sorry.
Now all of us are. Like many shows of late, “The River” hopes to nab an audience that craves action and terror impossibly layered with infinite, unknowable mysteries. Although it has some nice moves and the occasional tense moment, the show’s visual allure quickly leads to aggravation.
Executive-produced by Stev— y’know, I’ve typed the words “executive-produced by Steven Spielberg” so many times in TV reviews over the past year that the keyboard practically auto-finishes the phrase. Those words have become meaningless, at best indicating a certain predictability.
In this case, everything’s recycled. “The River” borrows from Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” “The Thing,” “The Blair Witch Project,” “The Serpent and the Rainbow,” Steve Irwin (a.k.a. the Crocodile Hunter, who met his demise in a stingray encounter in 2006) and even, weirdly, “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.”
Co-produced by the creator of the successful “Paranormal Activity” films, “The River’s” narrative is built around the “found footage” conceit, in that everything the viewer sees has been (or is being) videotaped by the crew or captured by security cams. Although this style has provided chilling verisimilitude in the past (the “Paranormal Activity” films can be terrifically unsettling), it also becomes a lazy gimmick.
Even as they’re being chased by bloodsucking jungle phantoms, the crew keeps filming. One of them gets his head ripped off, but sadly for us, his camera remains in good working order.
(one hour) premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. on ABC.