‘There’s magic out there.’’
That’s the catchphrase of Dr. Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood), the host of a Steve Irwin-style wildlife show called “The Undiscovered Country.’’ But Cole isn’t talking about producing a quarter from behind someone’s ear. Early on in the first episode of ABC’s “The River,’’ a new eight-episode series with a two-hour premiere tonight at 9, you believe that he is talking about the magic of nature, the immeasurable variety and mystery of flora and fauna he brings to his viewers - and he believes it, too. But Cole soon is bewitched by a darker kind of magic and gets himself mixed up in some pretty dangerous mojo while exploring the uncharted wilds of the Amazon.
It is that dark magic - of ghosts and mysticism and things that go bump in the rain forest - that runs through “The River.’’
Cole goes missing on an expedition and is presumed dead. But when his emergency beacon goes off, his tenacious wife, Tess (Leslie Hope, “24’’), estranged son Lincoln (Joe Anderson, “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Parts 1 and 2’’), and his crew, including snaky producer Clark Quietly (Paul Blackthorne), set off to find him. Naturally, they do this with cameras rolling.
Whether or not viewers take themselves to “The River,’’ ABC and the creators deserve credit for one thing: There is nothing that looks like this show on television right now.
As he has been on several shows of late - including “Terra Nova’’ and “Smash’’ - Steven Spielberg is the marquee name attached to “The River,’’ but the more telling executive producer credits go to co-creator Oren Peli and Jason Blum, the men behind the big screen dread-fest “Paranormal Activity’’ and its sequels.
Employing a similar “found footage’’ approach provides “The River’’ with several layers of visuals and ably conjures the sticky humidity, cramped quarters, and general grime of its settings on the ship and in the jungle.
There are cameras following the family and crew - which also includes the daughter of a missing cameraman and childhood crush of Lincoln’s, the ship’s mechanic and his spirit-connected daughter, and several camera operators - in contemporary reality fashion, complete with confessionals. There are the grainier, oddly angled shots produced by the surveillance eyes scattered throughout the boat. And then there’s the shaky footage captured in the jungle: half-faces caught in ghostly partial lighting, feet trampling through the underbrush, the blurring and winking out of images as cameras crash to the ground when someone (or something) attacks whoever is behind the lens. The mix of the familiar and the frantic creates an intriguingly creepy effect.
Greenwood, seen here in old “Undiscovered Country’’ footage and Lincoln’s flashbacks - which, in fact, are sometimes also outtakes from the show - perfectly nails that particular mix of awe, earnestness, and headstrong arrogance you would imagine a man like Cole having. He comes across as a man who wanted to know more, explore further, and somehow embed himself in the world more fully than those around him. Sometimes that meant giving his family short shrift in reality, even as he included them in his ambitious on-camera pursuits.
The work around him is less convincing, more melodramatic. Hope and Anderson try their best to convey the damage they suffered and the abiding love they carried for their husband and father. But Hope is saddled, at least at the beginning, with the hokey kind of “We have to find him!’’ urgency that can be difficult to sustain; and the British Anderson, playing an American, has a similar problem with his accent.
Blackthorne, however, is an unmitigated treat as the oily, manipulative producer. As he brays heartlessly about ratings and second seasons, you can practically see him twirling an imaginary mustache. It’s a cliche, but Blackthorne has a ball with it, and his character lays bare the connection between a literally bloodthirsty monster awaiting those seeking to exploit magic for glory and network television itself.
Sarah Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.