Review - The River, Season 1

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. 

ADDENDUM

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.

 

 

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Greg H.'s picture
Member since:
12 June 2009
Last activity:
6 days 21 hours

Like it - though flawed as described. Still watchable and somewhat compelling. Felt final shot of final episode jumped the shark though...without giving away a spoiler - if demon or whatever is so powerful to achieve that final shot, then nothing that occurred previously would have succeeded battling it...

Better must see shows:
Walking Dead - AMC
Hell on Wheels - AMC - Great show!
Supernatural still good after all these years...
True Blood hanging in there though somewhat incosistent...
Boardwalk Empire - excellent.

Greg H.

Cat Vincent's picture
Member since:
24 April 2008
Last activity:
3 weeks 2 days

That's a good point about the ending.
SPOILER SPACE
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I took it that the River was either powerful enough to make the drone cam see what it wanted (we saw in the same ep that cam footage could be edited, to erase Possessed Lincoln killing Jonas)... or the place itself was sentient and acting against them.

Or, as you say, it was a shark jump. Hopefully it'll get picked up and we'll get some closure.

Cat Vincent

Home: catvincent.com
Twitter: @catvincent

Ienpu's picture
Member since:
30 April 2004
Last activity:
2 days 10 hours

Psst...it's ABC..or at lest that's the network that airs it ;)

"..cast thou the Holy Circle of Starry Light..."

Cat Vincent's picture
Member since:
24 April 2008
Last activity:
3 weeks 2 days

Well spotted, and thanks. Editing now.

Cat Vincent

Home: catvincent.com
Twitter: @catvincent

Inannawhimsey's picture
Member since:
14 April 2009
Last activity:
31 weeks 5 days

nifty :3

this reminds me of Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood myth cycles.

which i'm still hoping gets done in some kind of movie format (as well as his brilliant Where Time Winds Blow

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All that lives is holy, life delights in life.

--William Blake