If last week’s series première revealed the potential inherent in The River, tonight’s “Los Ciegos” made its limitations all too clear. It’s a given that some episodes are going to be essentially self-contained, offering little in the way of mythology-building or forward progress on the mission of our not-so-fearless crew, and that was certainly the case with this one. Which is fine, except that “Los Ciegos” was neither well-constructed nor particularly scary, and its few stabs at character development were almost laughably clumsy in their execution.
It doesn’t help matters that the freak of the-week is a quasi-supernatural tribe of mud-covered natives, or that Jahel is once again more plot device than flesh-and-blood teenager. When the crew sets off into the jungle in search of a cave that has shown up repeatedly in the tapes left behind by Emmet, Jahel again plays the role of Magical Exotic Non-English Speaker, informing Lincoln that the mysterious etchings found on the cave are the mark of the Morcegos. These warrior tribesmen, known as the Guardians of the Forest, are not often happy to see a bunch of bickering white people tramping through their jungle, and who can blame them?
As if The River hadn’t already drawn enough comparisons to The Blair Witch Project, the show pushes the limits of homage when the crew awakens to find piles of sticks and stones in their campsite courtesy of the Morcegos. Worse yet, Emilio the mechanic has gone missing, and although the others find him right away, he has mysteriously lost the power of sight. One by one, the rest of the crew follow suit, apparently thanks to a magical blinding powder the natives have made from local roots and seeds and mud and other native-y stuff. The cure, according to Emmet’s diaries, is a bulb found underneath the rare Sentido tree.
Honestly, all of this is just one small step from an old movie serial about great white hunters running afoul of head-shrinking savages deep in the jungle, and it might have played better if The River displayed the slightest bit of awareness or sense of humor about this. (It’s a little disappointing that nobody fell in any quicksand, but maybe the writers are saving that for a future episode.) Instead, the episode builds to a cacophony of perils, which actually drains any potential suspense from the premise, particularly once Clark is accidentally (or semi-accidentally) stabbed by Kurt. Not only does Lincoln have to operate on Clark, he has to do it blind, which is at least a little funny considering that, earlier in the episode, he couldn’t even cut his own hair.
This last bit of business leads to one of the episode’s least convincing moments, as the amoral TV producer suddenly turns selfless, attempting to sacrifice himself to the Morcegos in order to save the rest of the crew. It’s admirable that the creative team is already trying to make Clark something more than the mustache-twirling villain he’s been until now, but this was way too much, way too soon. (An earlier revelation that Clark and Tess had become romantically involved following Emmet’s disappearance was not entirely unexpected, but it wasn’t enough to justify Clark’s jarring personality change. Maybe he’d just gone lightheaded from losing so much blood.) Cameraman A.J. undergoes a similar conversion, first abandoning Kurt and Lena on their search for the antidote, then playing hero when he stumbles upon the magical tree they’re looking for. Again, this was too superficial to be taken seriously, with A.J.’s conquering of his fear of caves (speluncaphobia, if you were wondering) being particularly eye-rolling.
With any luck, this is just a case of a new show stumbling a bit while searching for its footing, but the promising show I saw last week was little in evidence tonight. I hope The River isn’t going to become mired in formula so quickly, because it still has quite a bit of potential to become an effective, engrossing creepshow that offers both jump-out-of-your-seat scares and more subtle shades of weirdness. If it keeps settling for the sort of rote jungle hoo-hah it offered up this week, it’s going to get old pretty quickly.
- On the plus side, Joe Anderson didn’t annoy me quite as much this week, maybe because he didn’t have as much to do.
- Maybe it’s because CGI doesn’t mesh well with the faux-documentary aesthetic, but those giant leeches slithering around Lena and Kurt were particularly unconvincing.
- The ratings weren’t terrible last week, but they were nothing spectacular, either. The search for the next Lost goes on…