Advance Review: The River 1.01

A column article, Shot For Shot by: Matt Bucher

Just minutes into the pilot episode of ABC’s midseason series The River, Doctor Emmet Cole, long-time star of a popular TV documentary show which explores the splendor and marvels of nature, jubilantly faces his viewers at home and declares, “There’s magic out there!”

What he means, of course, is the wonder of nature. But to members of the post-Lost generation, it’s nearly impossible to hear those words and not assume they’re mysteriously prophetic. There’s magic out there? I’ll bet there is! And I’ll bet that’s not necessarily a good thing, either…

Sure enough, Doctor Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood), a smiling adventurer who often included his wife and young son on the TV show, making them “America’s family,” has gone missing. Six months earlier, he had set off on his trusty ship the Magus into strange parts of the Amazon that aren’t on any maps. Now three of his crew are dead, the Magus itself is missing, and Emmet Cole is presumed dead.

Except his wife doesn’t think so. Tess Cole (Leslie Hope, Jack Bauer’s doomed wife from the first season of 24) informs her now-grown son Lincoln (Joe Anderson, from The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn) that Emmet Cole’s emergency beacon signal has just gone off. And a TV network has offered to foot the bill for an expensive full-scale expedition to South America to search for the missing explorer. Their two conditions? That Lincoln accompanies Tess on the journey, and that the entire trip be filmed nonstop, documentary-style. Despite believing his father is dead, and harboring deep-rooted resentments toward him, Lincoln agrees.

The search begins, as the expedition heads to the Amazon. Spooky events occur. Secrets are revealed. The beacon signal is tracked to an empty, submerged diving cage, where steel bars have been bent. “It looks like something…tried to get out,” observes one of the crew. Indeed, danger lurks. We get answers to some questions while invariably new ones are raised. I won’t spoil it. But I will say that much of it is very cool, very scary, and genuinely surprising.

At one point, in a scene which echoes the Lost pilot, members of the crew stand at the head of a ship, staring into darkness, where something ominous has just revealed itself. “Guys,” someone says, after a pregnant pause, “What was that?”

At Comic Con last week, when the show ended and the house lights came on, the crowd erupted into noisy applause. The moderator, Monica Rizzo from People Magazine, declared The River to be “one of the best pilots’ she had ever seen.

A bit high praise, for my money. But make no mistake: it’s good. Very good. Full of suspense and real horror. As Lincoln Cole, Joe Anderson is terrific, playing a complex, conflicted character who finds himself at the center of a series of inexplicable events. Without a doubt, he’s the best part of the show. As Tess Cole, Leslie Hope is less compelling, though the character indeed has secrets of her own.

So what’s not to like about The River?

First and foremost, the gimmick that everything you’re watching is something that was filmed by TV cameramen. It’s a conceit executive producer Oren Peli knows well, since he employed a similar trick in the Paranormal Activity movies. Here it quickly becomes distracting. At times it works well, providing a heightened sense of reality. But over the course of the entire episode the artifice becomes oft-putting.

Which is particularly annoying since it’s so unnecessary. The story and acting here are top-notch. Yet every time a pivotal dramatic scene occurs – usually two actors in a private, heated debate, with fully-formed sentences and multiple camera angles – the notion that all this represents real life skillfully captured on tape by lurking cameramen grows irksome.

In addition, the episode felt a bit overstuffed, the pacing a little frantic. At times what seemed missing were quiet character moments following major story developments.

Finally, I do wonder how this premise can possibly sustain itself over the course of an entire season, or beyond. It might’ve been better served as a high-profile miniseries.

ABC’s newest supernatural thriller The River is not the next Lost. But it is a spooky, grade-A pilot that’s well-worth checking out in January 2012. I score it !

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