THE RIVER: First Thoughts on ABC’s Throw Everything at the Screen Horror Show

The River (2012) – Episodes 1-3: “Magus,” “Marbeley,” and “Los Ciegos” – Starring Bruce Greenwood, Joe Anderson, Leslie Hope, Eloise Mumford, Paul Blackthorne, Thomas Kretschmann, Daniel Zacapa, Shaun Parkes, and Paulina Gaitan.

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I tell my students never to use Wikipedia in an essay as a source. It’s just a bad idea to quote a source that can be changed by a smart-ass 15 year old who’s run out of albums to illegally download, and I would never do it. Ever. According to Wikipedia (at least for tonight), THE RIVER is “an American paranormal/adventure/horror/found-footage television series.”

It’s a paranormal … adventure … horror … found-footage television series.

That’s a lot of stuff, and they didn’t even add “fake reality show,” because it’s that, too.

That means THE RIVER is five distinct genres all jammed into one show. Obviously, it’s a complete mess.

Except it’s not.

Somehow, some way, THE RIVER has actually turned out to be a pretty decent show through it’s first three episodes. The set-up is that explorer/television star Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood) has gone missing. He used to sign off every episode of his TV show with the phrase, “There’s magic out there,” and at some point he began to take that literally, so he left his wife Tess (Leslie Hope), son Lincoln (Joe Anderson), and producer Clark (Paul Blackthorne) and went looking for magic in the Amazon, promptly getting himself lost. Lincoln grew up on the show aboard his father’s boat, the Magus, but has since had a parting of the way.s Smelling a hit show, Clark has been hired to corral Tess and Lincoln into making a new show about the search for the missing Emmet.

Tess is all gung-ho to go looking, but Lincoln doesn’t want to be bothered. His dad has just been declared legally dead and Lincoln is ready to move on with his life. But since neither Clark nor us would have a show without him, Lincoln agrees and they head to the Amazon, where they hook up with Lena (Eloise Mumford), the daughter of a camera man who’s also gone missing. Lena spent part of her childhood on the boat, too, and she continues to work for Emmet doing research. Lena and Lincoln clearly have some feelings for one another, and this slow reveal of everyone’s back story adds some depth and drama to THE RIVER beyond all the scary, spooky stuff.

Also joining them is Kurt (Thomas Kretschmann), a security operative, Emilio (Daniel Zacapa), the ship’s mechanic, his teenage daughter Jahel (Paulina Gaitan), who serves as the local expert on all things creepy, and A.J. (Shaun Parkes), a camera man. This motley crew goes looking for the Magus and actually finds it at the start of a river that doesn’t appear on any maps because it’s just that spooky.

Every episode is apparently going to see the Magus going further up river on their search for Emmet and having some scary adventure. In the first episode they find some kind of winged monster locked away in the ship’s panic room, in episode two they find some a whole lotta kids’ dolls hanging from some hidden trees, and in episode three they’ve got a native tribe robbing them of their vision and hunting them down.

The show manages to generate a decent amount of tension out of these scenarios, though at times it does get a bit melodramatic. Blame that on the format of the show, which is a paranormal … adventure … horror … found-footage … reality television series.

Thematically, the show mostly operates as the first three. It’s an adventure story about the supernatural where horror stuff happens to them. The look of the show, however, takes its cues from found footage and reality ghost hunting shows. THE RIVER is created by Oren Peli and Michael R. Perry, the creative team behind the found footage movie Paranormal Activity, and THE RIVER takes the look and feel of those films and transports it to a boat on the Amazon. The action off boat is filmed by handheld cameras and stand-alone, stationary cameras. On board ship, it’s the same mix, though with a heavier reliance on stationary cameras. There’s also some “God” cameras floating around, as a decent amount of the action is filmed as if this was a regular TV drama. The crew has also found Emmet’s secret stash of private recordings he’d made that track his descent into madness, but thankfully Emmet hasn’t labeled them so it’s hard for the crew to make heads or tails of them.

THE RIVER uses these various camera techniques to great effect, switching between all of these various types of shots to help build tension. It’s quite effective, and the selection of Bruce Greenwood to play the missing Emmet Cole is perfect. He’s the best actor on the show and the most likable person (at least so far) so you can understand why everyone is risking their lives to find him.

There’s plenty of tension between the characters, too, as most of the people on board either don’t like or don’t trust one another. There’s pockets of comfort, of course, which gives everyone a safe zone: Lincoln and Lena (both hoping to find their missing dads), Clark and A.J., Emilio and Jahel, and Kurt and himself. THE RIVER teases out its secrets of both a personal and supernatural nature and while it’s occasionally a ham-fisted attempt, and while the acting isn’t exactly the best TV has to offer, the writers and actors have found a way to make it work well enough to be a rather entertaining show.

THE RIVER has an 8-episode commitment from ABC for this abbreviated first season run, and I’ve seen enough in three episodes to stick around for the season. While not the best show on TV, THE RIVER is different enough to make it unique, and well-made enough to keep me coming back.

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6 thoughts on “THE RIVER: First Thoughts on ABC’s Throw Everything at the Screen Horror Show

  1. You obviously like THE RIVER a lot more than I do, Mark. I’m not entirely sold but I’m also not entirely turned off. I’m sufficiently intrigued to hang around for the first eight episodes and see where this goes.

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  2. I sure agree that Bruce Greenwood is by far the best actor in The River.
    It’s just too bad that he’s seen so very little on the show. He’s the one that I want to see and look for. But, so far, very little airtime. Hopefully there will be far more as the episodes progress. I’ll be watching all the episodes.

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    • They were actually smart about it. They gave a definite ending to Season 1 that concluded the storyline (meaning, they found Bruce Greenwood) – but kept the door open for Season 2 (they found Bruce but they weren’t able to get him out of the jungle because the River changed its course on them).

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