The River: “Magus”/“Marbeley”
B+

The River: “Magus”/“Marbeley”

B+

The River

“Magus”/“Marbeley”

Season 1, Episode 1
B+

The River

“Magus”/“Marbeley”

Season 1, Episode 2

This TV season, we’ve got so many writers who’ve seen these pilots that we thought getting two takes on each show would be helpful to you. The first review is the “official” TV Club review, and the grade applies to it. But we’ve also found another reviewer to offer their own take on the program. Today, Scott Von Doviak, who’ll be covering the show week to week, and Todd VanDerWerff talk about The River.

The River debuts tonight on ABC at 9 p.m. Eastern with a two-hour premiere. 

Scott: Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of the “found footage” horror craze is the fact that it didn’t happen sooner. After The Blair Witch Project became a pop-culture phenomenon in the summer of 1999, it certainly wouldn’t have been surprising to see a flood of ripoffs hit the market, yet with a few minor exceptions, that didn’t really happen. (Even the misbegotten Blair Witch sequel, Book Of Shadows, minimized the first film’s kids-with-a-camcorder gimmick.) It took the success of 2007’s Paranormal Activity to catapult the “found footage” technique to the forefront of the horror genre, to the point where it’s increasingly difficult to find a horror movie at your local multiplex that doesn’t purport to be edited from recovered tapes documenting some spooky supernatural event.

Now the director of Paranormal Activity, Oren Peli, has teamed with veteran weird-TV writer Michael R. Perry (Eerie, Indiana, American Gothic) for The River, ABC’s attempt at transplanting “found footage” horror to the weekly television format. The premise is immediately intriguing, but potentially problematic in the long run: Dr. Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood), host of the long-running nature series The Undiscovered Country, has gone missing on the Amazon River. For 22 years, Cole brought his enthusiasm for newly discovered species, his catchphrase “There’s magic out there,” and his family (wife Tess and son Lincoln) into American living rooms. Six months after his disappearance, Cole is presumed dead, and the search for him is called off.

Tess (Leslie Hope, best known as Jack Bauer’s doomed wife on the first season of 24) isn’t so sure her husband is dead, especially once an emergency signal on his beacon’s frequency is detected. She teams up with Cole’s producer Clark Quietly (Paul Blackthorne), who convinces the network to pay for a rescue expedition as long as his cameras have full access to Tess and son Lincoln (Joe Anderson), a reluctant recruit to what he perceives as a futile mission. Along with mechanic Emilio (Daniel Zacapa), his teenage daughter Jahel (Paulina Gaitan); security officer Kurt Brynildson (Thomas Kretschmann); and Lena Landry (Eloise Mumford). daughter of a missing cameraman; Tess, Lincoln, Clark, and their camera crew set off down the Amazon in search of Cole.

How long can such an expedition last in TV time, especially when it’s being presented to us as the reconstructed footage shot by Clark and his crew? The first season of The River will run eight episodes (the first two of which air tonight), and at first blush, that would seem to be more than enough time to tell a story that was initially envisioned as a feature film. After watching the première pair of episodes, however, I can see the show having a somewhat longer shelf life than that. I’m not predicting a Lost-like run or anything—the Amazon is long, but it’s not that long—but The River may have enough mysteries aboard its exploratory ship Magus to sustain it past its initial season. (And if not, the creators could always pull an American Horror Story and take us to another river altogether.)

Even if The River boasts enough story to support a lengthy run, there’s still the stylistic choice to contend with. The “found footage” conceit meshes well with the horror genre for several reasons: It offers immediacy, putting us inside the characters’ skin as they encounter the things that go bump in the night, and its low-tech aesthetic fosters some undeniably creepy effects involving little more than shadow and sudden movements. (You’ll want to watch The River with all the lights in the house off, unless you’re some kind of fraidy-cat.) Tonight’s first episode offers at least a couple of genuine jump-out-of-your-chair moments, with even more to follow in the second hour. But it’s probably best to just accept the conceit without scrutinizing it too closely. It’s true that, at times, the Magus seems to be made of nothing but cameras and microphones, but does anyone still wonder why that camera crew is documenting the entire lives of those Scranton paper company employees after so many seasons of The Office?

As with pretty much every network drama these days, The River’s publicity push has emphasized standalone stories over ongoing serialized elements. It’s too early to tell how this is going to play out, but in the early going at least, there’s an agreeable balance between the mythology (which involves a mysterious “Source” somewhere deep in the Amazon) and the creature of the week. The River is on somewhat shakier ground when it comes to the regular cast of characters. So far, at least, Cole’s presence is limited to a cache of old videotapes discovered aboard the Magus—tapes which essentially act as flashbacks within the narrative. Anderson hasn’t quite found his footing as scruffy, rebellious son Lincoln, maybe because he’s contending with the sort of wandering accent from nowhere so many British actors struggle with when cast as Americans. With any luck, Quietly and Brynildson will develop beyond the one-dimensional villains they appear to be so far. Hope risks being shrill at times, but she’s probably the strongest presence in the first couple of episodes—tough, determined, and only occasionally scared out her wits.

Overall, I’m cautiously optimistic about The River, if skeptical about its long-term prospects. If you’re on the fence after tonight’s first hour (which is, by necessity, loaded with setup), do stay tuned for the second episode, “Marbeley,” to get a better idea how this is going to work on a weekly basis. (Hint: If you have a fear of creepy dolls, this episode makes Chucky look like a Cabbage Patch Kid.) All aboard the Magus—this could be a fun ride.


Stray observations:

  • Is it even worth mentioning that Steven Spielberg is listed as one of The River’s executive producers? Has there been a new show in the past year that didn’t have Spielberg’s name on it?
  • One question that arises in the very first episode: Isn’t this show going to run out of characters to kill off rather quickly? I assume reinforcements will be coming from somewhere.
  • There’s something a little Kurtz-like about Cole’s voyage toward the Source that appeals to me. I hope to see more of this in future episodes.
  • “You know there’s a camera right there.” “I know.” Wink-wink.

Todd: The River is very, very silly, but I mostly enjoyed myself, even as I was ticking off a laundry list of problems with it. (Not least of them: The lead, Joe Anderson, is a fatal bore, and the show is dragged down every time we focus on him and his issues. Fortunately, this isn’t too often, but it’s just often enough to become irritating.) Horror’s become kind of a big thing on TV in recent years, and here’s an attempt to do found-footage horror on the medium. “Found footage” horror strikes me as a smart way to tackle the budgetary problem most TV horror will have, and the scares here—particularly in tonight’s second hour about a weird jungle doll haunting—are often very effective. There’s a fun sense of everyone involved figuring out just what they can do on TV, and it’s refreshing to see a show that cuts away from the big scares, rather than underwhelming with weird pacing or limp moments. And as a bonus, everybody accepts they’re dealing with weird, supernatural hoo-hah very quickly and doesn’t spend too much time whining about it.

The real winner here is Leslie Hope as Tess Cole. Hope’s been the faithful wife in many a television production, but here, she gets a chance to try on her Sigourney Weaver for size, and it works surprisingly well. If Tess were the center of this show—instead of her son—then we might have something genuinely great, instead of something that’s just a lot of fun. Here’s a strong, capable woman who finds out the love of her life—or is he?—has gone missing and jumps at the chance to venture into the middle of nowhere to get him back. When the camera’s trained on Hope, the show’s other flaws melt away, and we’re left with a strange, scary tale of one woman confronting a world full of demons.