On Thursday night, I had the extreme pleasure of screening the first two episodes of ABC’s highly-anticipated new paranormal adventure drama The River, which airs February 7th. Maybe I just got lucky here, but I checked that I “would be interested and available” for future “ABC research studies,” so hopefully this is the beginning of something great. You hear that, ABC and Entertainment Weekly (and anyone else)? I will make time to go to anything TV-related, just so we’re clear. Ok. Back to the show.
The plot: Beloved nature show television host Dr. Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood, “Star Trek”) has disappeared without a trace into an obscure part of the Amazon while filming with a small crew, and six months later, his family has given him a funeral and all but let him go – until his rescue beacon activates in an uncharted area of the river, known among locals as the Bouina (boy-ina). Emmet’s former producer, Clark Quietly (Paul Blackthorne, “The Gates”) comes to Tess (Leslie Hope, “24”, “The Mentalist”) and Lincoln Cole (Joe Anderson, “Across the Universe”), his wife and son, and tells them that the television company is prepared to finance the rescue mission, with one catch: that they are able to film it as a documentary starring Tess and Lincoln.
They agree, and suddenly we’re in full docu-camera mode. However, this isn’t your hand-held, motion-sickness documentary a la Cloverfield – none of the promo photos here are representative of what the documentary style actually looks like in the show. This is supposed to be a professional film and exploration crew, though, regardless of any crazy moments due to the, uh, paranormal activity out in the jungle. The new additions to the crew include Lena Landry (Eloise Mumford, “Lone Star”), sexy tech lady, daughter of Emmet’s cameraman, and probable love interest for Lincoln; cameramen AJ Poulain (Shaun Parkes) and Sammy Kirsch (Jeff Galfer); bodyguard with secrets to burn Captain Kurt Brynildson (Thomas Kretschmann, “Wanted”); loyal mechanic Emilio Valenzuela (Daniel Zacapa) and his daughter Jahel (Paulina Gaitan), who knows more about the legends of the Bouina than anyone on the trip (and has a few supernatural encounters of her own). With everyone in tow, they set off down the Bouina in search of Emmet, Russ, and their riverboat, the Magus.
Each episode is its own story, though the overarching plot is looking for Emmet and trying to figure out what would have made him make such an unexpected mission – especially once they find tapes of him saying that he’s looking for the “source of everything.” His show was always about finding the magic in nature, but in the footage they find from the abandoned Magus, they start to realize he suspected magic really did exist, at the end of the Bouina. Does it? You’ll have to watch and see for yourself.
The filming style of this is great. I was wary of the documentary style, just because it tends to get kind of nauseating and uncomfortable after a while. However, I never felt that here. Yes, there are moments where it’s uncomfortable, but because it’s meant to be filmed by a professional crew, most of the shots are steady and actually really good. Plus, because the Magus was home to the family nature documentary for years, there are cameras literally all over the boat, which still work and lend themselves nicely to the format. And they don’t let you forget that it’s a documentary – Clark is a driving force, one of the most plausible characters, as he manipulates the situation around him to make the documentary last longer. As Emmet’s former producer, he does want to find him, but not as much as he wants to get a good show.
I don’t want to spoil it for you (and I don’t think ABC would appreciate it, either), so I’m not going to give away any major plot points, but I am going to tell you that you should definitely watch it. It wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be, but I was definitely in full-on eyes-wide-open mode for the entire two episodes. And I’m that person who looks away when she gets freaked out, and not once did I look away. Yes, it’s a thriller, and yes, there are jumpy scenes, but not once was I grossed out or really scared.
In the Q&A after the screening, director Oren Peli said that he didn’t find slasher movies or gore scary. He said that what he thinks is the most frightening is when you aren’t quite sure what the danger is, or more importantly, where it is. If it’s dark, if you only see what the camera sees, the danger could literally be next to you and you wouldn’t know it. And that’s where The River succeeds. This isn’t a gimmicky documentary show that relies on cheap scares. They’ve done their work and created their own legends (based in real legend), and though each episode is its own encased story, it felt like one uncut documentary.
Something Peli also said was that he thinks The River is different from other forms of “found footage” work in that it isn’t meant to be footage that was all found at once and then compiled. Instead, it’s meant to be happening in almost real time, where Clark and Lena are sending these tapes back to the network, who’s putting them together and airing them as quickly as they receive them. I think that gives it a more realistic feel – literally anything could happen and it would seem real. The one drawback is that they do insert footage from Emmet’s show from when Lincoln and Lena were children to sort of shape the story, and while it does give it a stronger narrative, it could take away from the instant reality of it.
I will say that I have one major reservation about this show, and that is the potential to sensationalize the traditions and culture of the native peoples of the world. During the Q&A, it was mentioned that the doll tree scenario as visited in the second episode is a real location – but in Mexico. But they adapted it for the show because, yes, its possibilities within a show like this are endlessly freaky. Is it okay to do something like that? What does that mean for the people whose culture is being trivialized for television? Will they ever know about it? Odds are no, but it’s still something to think about. Thoughts here?
And a big question on everyone’s lips on Thursday was how The River compares to Lost. Like it or not, the comparison is there, and Peli addressed it directly. He said that while most dramas today take place in an urban environment like a hospital or police precinct, the idea of exploring a dangerous jungle is still exciting. It’s still a foreign concept in today’s television market, and ABC was happy to latch onto the success they found with Lost, though everyone knew coming in that The River was a much different show. So really, and from the two episodes I saw, the shows really have nothing in common other than that they take place in a jungle rather than in a city. Otherwise – completely different. Peli also said that he thought the ending of Lost was “meh,” so, you know, he’s dead to me now. Whatever. I’ll still watch his show because it’s great.
Right now, it looks like the two major questions we’ll facing this season are:
- What happened to Emmet Cole?
- What is “The Source” that Emmet was searching for?
Though The River scared me, it left me only wanting more. There are only eight episodes in the first season, and having seen the first 25%, I’m dying to see the rest. Peli hinted that there would be some kind of resolution by the end of the season, at least to the first question, and that if it got picked up, they know where they want to take the show. I hope you all do give this show a chance. Yes, the previews are kind of terrifying, but the show itself isn’t as scary as I had thought it would be. Did it make me jump? Yes. But I still loved every minute of it, and I plan to do it all over again in a few weeks.
Plus, they gave everyone who turned in a survey a free The River aluminum water bottle and the latest copy of Entertainment Weekly. So that was pretty cool – a great perk after some of the most intense two hours of television watching, ever.
So everyone should definitely be tuning into the river when it airs February 7th on ABC. I guarantee it’ll freak you out a bit, but in a really good way.
Click here to see more official ABC information about the show. All official images property of ABC.