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8th February 2012

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The River - Pilot/Episode 2 (2012)

I’m refraining from looking up the credits on this one as I want to avoid accidentally reading any bits of other critical reaction to this highly-touted new (mini?)series. The only reaction I’ve gotten so far is from a friend and coworker who recorded it and stopped watching after episode one because he was disappointed at the lack of action, although he will probably watch the second. This, by the way, is a guy who was a big Lost fan, and who has plenty of love for horror and suspense.

The story is about Emmett Cole (Bruce Greenwood, the only actor I can name), who did a kind of Crocodile Hunter-type show with his family in the ’90s, except instead of finding wildlife he was discovering hidden cultures around the world. Now he’s disappeared on his latest exploration, prompting his wife and now-grown son to mount a search and rescue mission into his last known destination in the South American (I think) jungle. When the young woman (I think she’s the daughter of Cole’s director, and a constant childhood presence on the show’s expeditions) finds a river that’s not shown on their maps, the viewer will infer that we are now in a place where strange things can happen, the rules don’t apply, and there will be no one to rescue them.

They find Cole’s ship, the Magus, and upon investigation some sort of creature flees from it into the jungle, so fast no one can tell what they saw. If you didn’t know, the whole series is filmed in a jerky, handheld camera style commonly referred to as “found footage” now, a la The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, although on this expedition it is very much planned with several cameramen and an editing bay on-board the ship. As such, we can probably expect there to be at least one episode where the director analyzes some footage and finds something strange and horrifying there that no one saw when it occurred.

Anyway, the creature, or something else, gets a taste of blood and kills off one of the cameramen, and the rest of the folks try to get the old boat fixed so they can get out of there. As the two episodes run together, I can’t remember if some things happened in the first or second, but I will just mention that at some point, the son and mom argue about why Cole went out on his own, without her for the first time in many years, and it’s heavily implied that she probably cheated on him. There are some flashbacks, particularly in the second episode, that show Cole to be a wonderful, inspiring father, and also one that shows a strange symbol on the neck of the director’s daughter, which I think correlates to a necklace Cole gave his son. So, yes, there is some mystical hoo-ha, and plenty of it.

The director (in this case I mean the actual director of the show, not the director character) and writers, essentially have an eight hour (with commercials) horror movie to play out here, and on network TV, so you won’t see a lot of gore (although there is a good deal of bleeped profanity). To accomplish this, it seems they will resort to every horror trope they can reasonably utilize in the river/jungle setting, including a possessed girl speaking with a man’s voice (Cole trying to tell his wife to stay away), the Paranormal type of scene where someone is thrown around by an unseen supernatural entity, objects that fall from same entity, people dragged away by same entity, and even spooky baby dolls animated by same entity. It’s all filmed quite effectively and there are some legitimately creepy moments, though in most cases the viewer is trained to look for them in the background because the camera becomes sufficiently still. I didn’t have as much of a problem with the deliberate pacing of the first episode as my friend, but where the show does come up short, so far, is with the characters. We understand there is quite a bit of guilt and anger with Cole’s son and wife, one of the cameramen has no empathy and is only concerned with getting the shot, and the director’s daughter will probably end up romantically involved with the son because they’re both young and attractive, but it’s all still rather sketchy, and though in fairness it’s hard to make a great impression as an actor when one is mainly looking stressed and reacting to horror movie shtick, it also has to be said no one in the cast exactly jumps off the screen with charisma. So far, a pretty decent effort that’s very competent as B-movie horror, but it will take better characterization, and a satisfying development of the mystical underpinnings of the story, to make this a success.

Tagged: tv reviewsthe river