Jeremy Likes TV

I like TV. Probably more than any human should.

Review: The River

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Grade: A-

Horror on television has typically been difficult to pull off. Whether it’s, as Alan Sepinwall points out, that budgetary restrictions often handicap television horror projects or that it’s trickier to keep a horror story sustained over an indefinite period of episodes as opposed to a 90-minute block of time in film, horror has not been a particularly successful genre on television. Sure, there’s the odd X-Files that reaches a mainstream audience but typically shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer or Supernatural carve out their fiercely loyal niche audiences and that’s that. With that in mind and with the deck stacked against ABC’s new series The River, the possibility of it having any chance at long-term success was almost as much of a mystery as the one central to its plot.

The River follows the search for beloved explorer Dr. Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood, Star Trek) [1] who has disappeared without explanation in the Amazon. When the series begins, Cole is initially presumed dead but his wife Tess (Leslie Hope, 24) later assembles a search party after his personal beacon goes off supposedly showing that he may be alive in the middle of the jungle. As both Tess and her now-grown son Lincoln (Joe Anderson, The Crazies) were a large part of Cole’s long-running television show, Tess is able to leverage their celebrity into convincing the network that aired Cole’s show pay for the entire expedition with a rather large caveat – they want to be able to film the rescue mission and they want both Tess and Lincoln to participate in the project, otherwise the deal is off. Getting Lincoln on board proves tricky initially, owing both to the fact that he believes that his father is truly dead and that their relationship had become strained over the past few years. We meet Lincoln as Tess and the network crew – lead by smarmy producer Clark Quitely (Paul Blackthorne, Lipstick Jungle) and arrogant cameraman A.J. Poulain (Shaun Parkes, Doctor Who) – ambush him at a bar where Tess gives him the news about Cole’s beacon. After Lincoln is finally convinced to join the expedition, we’re introduced to the rest of the team – private security mercenary Capt. Kurt Brynildson (Thomas Kretschmann, Lost), ship mechanic Emilio Valenzuela (Daniel Zacapa) [2], Valenzuela’s daughter Jahel (Paulina Gaitan) who has an extensive knowledge of the supernatural, and the daughter of Cole’s missing cameraman, Lena Landry (Eloise Mumford, Lone Star). The River does a commendable job of giving us a sense of all of these characters by the time the first hour is complete which, when introducing this many new characters in a short amount of time, is no small feat.

After eventually tracking down Cole’s beacon and finding an empty diving cage, the group comes upon Cole’s abandoned ship, the Magus, and board it in search of clues to where Cole and his crew may have ended up. Of course, this being a horror/thriller, the Magus is effectively creeped out when they find it with strange noises and strange sights everywhere. While investigating the ship’s panic room [3], the group finds what appears to be a voodoo-inspired shrine and something that looks initially like a body, but instead reveals itself to be much more sinister than that, attacking Lena before fleeing the ship. The tagline of Cole’s television show – which we’re told has aired every Saturday for 22 years – was, “There’s magic out there,” and our castmembers – through Jahel – come to realize that Cole was investigating and getting involved in real, supernatural magic which is likely what caused his disappearance. To say much more would spoil some of the surprise of the series but, suffice it to say, The River does deliver genuine scares on multiple occasions. From a casting standpoint, Hope has a strong driven presence as Tess, a woman focused solely on finding her husband. Blackthorne seems to be having a lot of fun as Quietly, the ostensible villain of the show while Mumford is a very welcome new presence playing Lena, a character who I’m not entirely convinced isn’t hiding something. I suppose that the only real weak link thus far is Anderson as some reviewers have found him to be boring in the central role of Lincoln but I thought he was fine enough in the two hours that have aired, though if he’s to anchor the series he probably will have to start turning in stronger performances. I also really liked the glimpses via flashback into Cole himself. Greenwood plays the menace behind the façade of the beloved television host very well.

While the easy comparison here is to Lost [4] but I think it’s more accurate and fair to equate The River to something like the Paranormal Activity film franchise [5] or the cult sci-fi film Event Horizon because there’s a definite film-like quality to at the very least the first episode of the series [6]. I’m not sure that The River’s ambition is as high as a show like Lost and, despite the fact that the castaways on Lost were stranded on an island, The River manages to feel much more claustrophobic – in a good way – than Lost ever did. That the show is shot as a hybrid of the found-footage style and behind-the-scenes television production also works in its favor. As Sepinwall noted, it’s an inventive way around the lower budgets that television series have relative to their film counterparts, but it’s also a unique look for television. Mockumentary-style series have been prevalent over the past few years [7], but whereas their construct seems to serve simply as an excuse to allow their characters to address the camera directly, here the setup makes sense within the world of the show. Since we’re in essence watching a show within a show, the different camera angles that The River employs gives it a unique visual style that sets it apart from other shows on television, while allowing a character like Quitely to exist as a vehicle for Peli and his writers to skewer the reality-show genre by displaying Quitely’s propensity to stir the pot with the members of the search party in the name of creating “better television.” It also gives a different viewpoint by including cameramen such as Poulain who are competitive in wanting to get the “perfect shot,” often at the cost of their own personal safety. There are many different avenues that The River could take thanks to its construction and, speaking as a viewer, that’s pretty exciting.

If you’ve read any of my views in the past, you know that I tend to gravitate towards things that are different than the norm when it comes to television entertainment. The River most certainly fits that category. There aren’t many other shows on TV that offer the types of scares that The River does. From a visual standpoint, there aren’t many other (or any other, for that matter) shows that look like The River. It also, unlike many other television shows, seems to have an idea of where it’s headed and it displays an obvious confidence in what it wants to do. If I were an actor – and I didn’t have a well-known aversion to the outdoors – The River is the type of project that I’d want to work on. It’s not content to travel the easy road and is instead interested in trying to be something more than the average. To my mind? There really isn’t much more you can ask for.

[1] Think an American Jacques Cousteau-esque TV host whose focus wasn’t limited to just aquatic matters.
[2] Who we learn was sent home by Cole prior to Cole departing on the exploration where Cole went missing.
[3] A room that Jahel warns them not to have anything to do with, telling them that something (but not Cole) is not in there.
[4] The shows share a jungle setting and there are mysterious, unexplained occurrences on both shows, but beyond that the similarities cease.
[5] Not surprising since The River was developed and created by Paranormal Activity writer/director Oren Peli.
[6] Its second hour felt more like a television show, but a very good one at that.
[7] Usually within the sitcom genre. The Office, Parks And Recreation, and Modern Family come to mind.

Miscellany:
*I’m completely on board with the choice to use bleeped-out profanities instead of trying to find another alternative that would get past ABC’s censors. It only serves to add to the created realism of the project.
*There are strong hints, beyond Tess’s dogged determination to find her husband, that there may have been some sort of dalliance between she and Quietly. Maybe that determination is borne out of guilt as much as it is love?
*I could also be convinced that there’s something unseemly going on between Cole and Lena, but I’m less sure of that than I am about the Tess/Quietly coupling.
*I like the fact that there seems to be some kind of conspiracy that Kretschmann’s character is involved in. He’s seen contacting someone on a satellite phone at one point saying about Cole, “If he found the source, I’ll put him down.” Definitely lends his character much more intrigue than if he were simply hired muscle.
*Without getting too heavy into spoilers, the show seems to be willing and able to begin setting up a mythology late in hour two. I’m looking forward to seeing where that’s headed. Doctor Who fans in particular might find it to be of some interest.
*A monkey wearing a doll’s head? Creepy. As. Shit.
*”So, Lincoln… tell us about your father.” “Go fuck yourself.”
*”We need a new camera operator.” “Well… the last one got his head taken off by a ghost so… good luck with that.”
*”Just so we’re clear — a little girl who talks to ghosts says don’t go. And we’re going.”
*Episodes one and two below courtesy of Hulu.

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Written by jeremylikestv

February 14, 2012 at 8:39 pm

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