“There’s magic out there...” - Emmet Cole.
“My alibi’s in HD.” - AJ Poulain.
The ABC show The River aired the last episode of its first, and likely only, season, on 20th March. Few fictional prime-time TV shows of recent years have been as unabashedly Fortean as this one… and yet, I hesitate to recommend it unreservedly.
The River is the creation of Oren Peli and Michael R Perry. Perry has some form for this kind of TV, having served as a producer on Millennium, Freakyleaks and The Dead Zone. Peli made his bones more recently, as writer/producer of the popular Paranormal Activity found-footage movies - and The River follows firmly in the footsteps of that genre.
The set-up is nicely established in the pilot: world-renowned explorer and TV show presenter Emmet Cole (played by old genre hand Bruce Greenwood, of Nowhere Man and the Star Trek reboot fame) has vanished deep into the Amazon. Six months later, his emergency beacon is activated, resulting in his wife and son setting up an expedition to find and hopefully rescue him. The only way they can fund the search is by bringing Cole’s TV crew along to document the entire voyage - under the proviso that everything is taped for a future show.
And, as they say… this is the footage they left behind.
As there’s only eight episodes, it would be an unfair spoiler to say too much more. The pilot sets the mood and introduces the cast nicely - and is in itself an impressive piece of television, using the limitations and advantages of the found-footage set-up cleverly. It also makes it clear that, by crossing into the tributary of the Amazon known as the Boiuna, the characters have entered a magical realm. Cole’s hit TV show, The Undiscovered Country, used his line “there’s magic out there” as its slogan - and it is the search for the prime source of this magic that drove Cole’s last trip, and the same wild magics imperil the rescue party more and more the deeper they go.
It’s the manifestation of this magic which is a highlight of the early episodes. Recovered video footage of Cole, grinning like a holy madman while he summons clouds of dragonflies and fire into his hands by will alone, make it clear that ordinary reality has been left far behind. It is no coincidence that the riverboat Cole used in his journey (rapidly found and repurposed by the rescuers) is called ‘Magus’.
There’s an awful lot of creepy fun packed into the existing episodes of the show. Though the performances and characters range from enjoyable to (on occasion, barely) competent, I found myself enjoying their company - especially the foul-mouthed English pair of the producer and chief cameraman, played by Paul Blackthorne and Shaun Parkes respectively. (An advantage of the found-footage conceit is that all swearing is bleeped out, leaving the actual dialogue rather cleverly salty - at one point Blackthorne’s character Clark Quietely clearly calls himself “a cunt”. Bravo!) Also worthy of praise is newcomer Paulina Gaitan as Jahel, daughter of the boat’s engineer, psychic and expository dialogue fountain (The AV Club reviews fondly nicknamed her ‘The Spanish Exposition’).
So, with all this going for it, why am I reticent to recommend the show completely?
There’s at least two episodes, probably more, where the found-footage conceit totally fails. Cameras are placed in ridiculously implausible places, purely so they can catch a glimpse of something creepy going on that the characters could not have foreseen - and a few times, footage appears which would have been impossible to get because nobody could have shot it. (Although, to be fair, there is a strong hint in the final episode that the footage should be considered as even more of an unreliable narrator than the failings of documentary editing can account for.) Several times, characters act stupidly in the service of plot - the condition known as ‘carrying the idiot ball’. The magical sense-of-wonder of early episodes is later replaced with a tedious good-versus-evil narrative, ending with a cliched and obvious possession and exorcism in the last episode - although then again, much of that final episode, especially the very last shot, is rather nicely done.
So, The River is as fine a modern TV definition of a curate’s egg as I’ve ever seen - parts of it are really good. If you’re able to handle the more sulphurous aspects, there’s a lot of fun - and indeed, magic - in there.
While going to press, it was announced that Netflix are interested in buying the show from CBS for a possible second season… even though it hasn’t been officially cancelled yet. For all my reservations, I will certainly watch a second season of The River if it happens.