The River is a paranormal horror television series that premiered on ABC on February 7, 2012. It ran for eight episodes before being cancelled because of low ratings and general terribleness.
The show centers on Dr. Emmet Cole (played by Bruce Greenwood), a nature explorer and host of the popular TV show Undiscovered Country. He is loved by millions of fans the world over. Think Steve Irwin or Jeff Corwin. During an expedition into the Amazon rainforest, Cole and his crew disappear completely. The show begins six months after his disappearance when his emergency beacon suddenly begins transmitting a signal. An expedition to find him is organized. The show tells the story of this expedition and the supernatural obstacles it encounters along the way.
Cole’s estranged wife Tess played by Leslie Hope (of Mrs. Jack Bauer fame) and estranged son Lincoln lead the expedition which is funded by Cole’s former network. They offer to pay for the trip as long as they can film a documentary about the ordeal.
Tess and Lincoln are joined by a handful of lackluster characters.
Frank Quietly is Cole’s long-time friend and producer who is in charge of filming the documentary.
Lena Landry is the daughter of one of Cole’s missing cameramen. Her main contribution to the show is looking hot in a seemingly unlimited supply of cleavage-baring tank tops.
Emilio Valenzuela is a mechanic who is Labrador retriever-loyal to Cole and is hired to keep the crew’s boat running smoothly (which it never does).
Emilio has an adult daughter named Jahel who speaks no English yet understands every English word said by everyone all the time. Anytime the crew encounters anything strange or mysterious, Jahel is quick to offer her complete and endless knowledge of every supernatural occurrence or legend ever recorded in every corner of South America (including the uncharted part of the river through which the crew is traveling).
There is also a shady German private security bodyguard named Kurt who carries guns and looks stern.
And there’s a cameraman named A.J. who can’t wait to get home.
All of the actors do a decent job with the material, but their performances are far from great, except for Bruce Greenwood, who has some awesome moments towards the end of the show.
The River begins with the crew embarking on their trip. They quickly stumble upon Cole’s abandoned ship the Magus. It is a rusted out and in a mild state of decrepitude after having spent a few months exposed to the harsh elements of the rainforest. Luckily, the ship’s highly sensitive electronic components and TV production equipment is in in absolutely perfect working order, including the million and a half cameras covering every nook and cranny of the ship.
The crew boards and resurrects the Magus and tries to locate of Cole by using the video footage he recorded in the days before his disappearance. And why couldn’t they when every video is of Cole standing in front of a bunch of trees THAT LOOKS EXACTLY LIKE EVERY OTHER BUNCH OF TREES IN THE RAINFOREST!
The River is told through Cole’s videos and the footage captured by the documentary crew because I guess using a normal shooting style isn’t edgy enough. And also because the show was co-created by Paranormal Activity writer/director and found footage one-trick pony Oren Peli. And oh boy does he recycle every shot used in Paranormal Activity! Single camera time lapse shots. People being mysteriously and suddenly dragged out of frame. Evil entities staring directly at us through the camera. The greatest hits!
The found footage style is a forced and unnecessary gimmick that I could live the rest of my life without ever seeing again. Even the show’s directors are quick to abandon the gimmick. There are many scenes where there is clearly not a cameraman or ship camera present to record, yet we still get to see what is going on.
The shakiness of the cameras is taken to ridiculous levels almost approaching self-parody. I don’t know if you’ve seen The Amazing Race, but their cameramen can flat out haul ass at top speed and still manage to keep everything fairly steady. There is one shot in an early on in The River from the point of view of a cameraman standing on completely firm ground while filming a helicopter slowly descending in an open field. Good grief, the shakiness! You would have thought he was riding a Tilt-A-Whirl while the Earth was tearing itself apart.
There is another problem with the show’s forced used of this filming style. Every character aboard the Magus is fully aware that every square inch of the ship has a camera trained on it, yet they repeatedly try to sneak off to some quiet corner to work some treachery which, SHOCKINGLY, is captured on camera and seen by everyone else. Dumb.
And lest we leave any reality TV stone unturned, the series is also peppered with Real World confessional-type “personal interviews” with each character. These are laughable at best as neither the writers nor actors has the ability to make them believable. They don’t really add anything to the narrative but are used to deepen our understanding of each character. Though each interview can usually be summed up with “I miss Emmet. I hope we can find him.”
The River is also replete with overwrought attempts at tension. A typical sequence goes like this:
(Character 1 is severely injured)
Character 2: We’ve got to get him to a hospital! If we don’t get him to a hospital, he’s going to die! Hospital! Hospital!
(The ship’s engine dies.)
Character 3: We can’t get him to a hospital. The ship’s engine just died.
Character 2: Well, he’ll just have to pull through.
(Character 1 pulls through.)
My main problem with The River is a problem I have with other shows like it. And that is the inappropriate reactions of characters to extraordinary happenings. The River is presented to the viewer as being based in a rational, non-magical world. In this world we have to assume that spirits, ghosts, demons, and the like are things that people believe in but which have not been definitively proven to be real. By watching through the lense of a documentary, I am supposed to put myself alongside the show’s characters. Granted I do not believe in the supernatural, but even if I was a wholehearted believer, I’d like to think that coming face to face with an actual disembodied spirit would be a life-altering experience. I would defecate all over myself, collapse into a heap, and attempt to re-evaluate my place in the world whose very reality has just been entirely redefined.
But our characters take everything in stride. They see a ghost, accept it, occasionally crack a joke about it, and move on to the next unbelievable and horrifying monster in their path. At no point does anyone freak the eff out and scream “OH MY GOD WHAT IS GOING ON?! THIS IS THE CRAZIEST THING THAT HAS EVER HAPPENED! DID YOU SEE THAT?! OH MY GOD?!” Which would be the proper response.
Suspension of disbelief only works if the characters come to terms with the extraordinary through carefully measured increments of acceptance. You can’t go all in when the first ghost card is played.
The show builds to a saccharine finale with tropes we’ve seen many, many times before in the paranormal genre. The season‘s story arc is wrapped up, but we are given a tasty cliffhanger that we will never get to see resolved. Unfortunately, the final scene of the show was also its most interesting.
The idea of a rescue mission down the Amazon holds a lot of TV potential, but sadly, The River is an exercise in recycled and repackaged unoriginality. From the shaky cams to the bumps in the night to a Blair Witch reference (annoyingly reminding us what the show could be), we’ve seen it all before.
Here’s hoping that this kind of found footage television drowns in The River before finding its way out.