You have to give "The River" (9 p.m. EST Tuesday, ABC) credit for living up to its name.
It does indeed take place on a river, and its premise is, like a big body of water, pretty easy to follow: Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood), the world-renowned host of a popular nature program, has gone missing in the Amazon, and his family is trying to find him. Spooky hijinks ensue.
Having watched five episodes of this eight-hour series, you'd think I'd have something definitive to say about it. "The River" isn't terrible, and it actually has some effective elements, but it's fairly indicative of ABC's post-"Lost" flailing. Over the past five or six years, ABC has tried and tried again to replicate parts of the "Lost" formula, but with more timid concepts and less imaginative executions. Turns out imitating parts of the iconic island show and throwing a lot of money and actors at those genre-tinged copies just makes those of us who loved "Lost's" strangely addictive and ever-changing melange miss it all the more.
Given the network's track record in this arena, any ABC show with freaky elements and/or an excess of tropical foliage is going to get a skeptical once-over. Fool me once, shame on you. Attempt to fool me 27 times and you will wake my inner Smoke Monster.
Still, despite my misgivings, I kept watching "The River." And as I watched the first five episodes of the show, a point-counterpoint developed while writing things down in my notebook. I'd finish noting something I liked about the show, but then I'd have to jot down one of the more melodramatic contrivances that I'd sighed (or giggled) about. Almost everything I liked about this relatively unambitious scare-fest would be balanced out by something that struck me as predictable or a little goofy.
I'm not a fan of scary movies for the most part, so the fact that some of the people behind "Paranormal Activity" helped create "The River" didn't do a lot for me (Steven Spielberg is also listed in the credits; this is one of the approximately 4,000 shows he's put his name on in the last few years). The first five hours of "The River" attempt to blend horror, thrills and very rudimentary character drama, but I wasn't possessed by an overwhelming urge to find out what happened in the final three hours of the first season. There were, however, things I enjoyed about the show.
If you like spooky dramas and are wondering whether this show is worth your time, perhaps this list of pros and cons will help you decide whether to embark on this "River" cruise.
Reasons to watch "The River":
1. It's your basic haunted-house story.
It might have an exotic setting, but "The River" has a fairly classic horror set-up, with haunted boat taking the place of a creaky old mansion. The premise of the show has Cole's wife, Tess (Leslie Hope) and son, Lincoln (Joe Anderson), setting out to find the missing naturalist in the Magus, the battered ship that the Cole family had long used as a base for their globe-trotting adventures. Like a more wholesome outpost of the "Real World" franchise, every corner of the boat is tricked out with cameras, so as the Coles and their crew float down the Amazon attempting to follow Emmet's trail, all manner of odd occurrences are recorded by the ship's cameras and by the TV crew on board. The boat hosts its share of weird creatures, and venturing off the Magus leads to further creepy adventures, most of which are wrapped up within individual episodes.
2. It's only eight episodes.
Why does a television season have to be 13 or 22 episodes? The standard TV model has come under increasing pressure in recent years, and it's not just because networks are trimming budgets. Let's face it: TV shows that put out 22 or 24 episodes probably only end up with 10 episodes worth writing home about every season. "The River" is at least attempting to adapt a model that is very common in the U.K.: This season is only eight episodes (though it could come back for a second season if the first does well). Especially in its first episode, "The River" shows an admirable economy and brisk pace as it lays out the mystery of Emmet's disappearance and the conflicts that afflict his family, crew and production personnel. Even if the show is a little slapdash or logy at times, there's a sense that "The River" isn't going to tapdance and stretch the central story beyond its breaking point. And even if you do get fed up, you'll only have invested a few hours in the show.
3. There are some effectively freaky and scary moments.
Many of the best moments of "The River" are glimpses that flash by quickly; what's more scary than the thing you think you see out of the corner of your eye? Those kinds of atmospheric moments are generally more effective than the bigger set pieces the show attempts with more easily identifiable villains or ghouls. But if you like creepy scares and unsettling happenings, this show keeps them coming with clockwork regularity. And unlike "The Walking Dead," "The River" isn't grim or depressing. At its B-level best, "The River" is hokey horror fun shot with a knowing reality-TV aesthetic.
4. It won't strain your brain.
When it comes to an overarching "mythology," nothing about the season-long story arc will strain your memory banks. From the sounds of it, Emmet tumbled into an obsession with the kinds of magic he found deep in the Amazonian jungles, and, not surprisingly, the local gods aren't very keen on an outsider poking around in their world. The gods are angry with Emmet, or so it would seem, and they're not much happier with his rag-tag rescue party. The theme of vengeful spirits might be vague and derivative, but at least it's not hard to remember.
Reasons to Avoid "The River":
1. The strongest members of the cast are not given much of interest to do.
If I were a network executive, I would happily build a show around Thomas Kretschmann (who plays the boat's head of security), Paul Blackthorne (who plays the hilariously named TV producer Clark Quietly) or Leslie Hope (who plays Tess Cole and was one of the best things about the early days of "24"). Each actor is capable of grounding the more outlandish or contrived moments, which helps smooth over some of the sillier developments, but generally speaking, their characters are largely underdeveloped or given distressingly rudimentary character arcs. As for Lincoln (Joe Anderson), he's a dude with daddy issues tromping around a lush jungle, but he's no Jack Shephard. Lincoln's often far less interesting than Clark and Tess, and the fact that Anderson's accent wavers between British and American doesn't help matters.
2. The "cameras everywhere" aspect of the show becomes more contrived over time.
There are moments when it simply doesn't seem realistic for the reality-show crew to have gotten top-quality footage of events, especially when everyone is terrified and running around the jungle or scurrying about on the river. There is lots of decent footage of everything on the ship, but would the ship really have that many cameras going 24 hours a day? Even in private quarters? If nothing else, the Cole family must have spent millions on videotape, generators and camera equipment.
3. The guy they're trying to rescue seems like a bit of an ass.
As glimpsed in footage and outtakes from his TV show, and as described by those who knew him, Emmet Cole seems like a driven man who essentially abandoned his family for reasons that don't hold up all that well under scrutiny. Yet his son, who'd hated him, decides to commit to the dangerous quest to find him. The dedication of his wife, who had her own share of issues with Emmet, is similarly baffling; the show simply does a lackluster job of selling viewers on the need to find the self-absorbed Emmet Cole. The drama intimates that the jungle may have "taken" Emmet for its own secret purposes. At times, I thought the jungle should just keep him (and a few other Magus residents).
4. Some of the melodramatic aspects of the show are just silly.
The daughter of the ship's mechanic appears to be around solely to make sonorous pronouncements and to offer vague portents. She's not a person; she's a doom generator. Also, some of the "Oh! Jungle magic did it!" explanations for various events come off as lazy storytelling. In any event, why should we believe any of "The River's" mystical hoo-ha if the show isn't going to go to the trouble of grounding it in well-conceived characters with believable motivations?
5. The river itself, oddly enough, isn't that interesting.
It's become a cliche for producers to emphasize how important locations are when it comes to establishing mood and tone (The refrain you always hear is, "[Insert name of city] was another character on the show!"). "The River" was indeed filmed on location in Hawaii, but the jungle is a weirdly featureless place. The characters appear to traverse the same few overgrown paths again and again and the river itself has none of the exoticism or interesting details you'd expect from lush jungle environment. As for the Magus, sometimes the claustrophobic quarters on the ship work in "The River's" favor, but how many ways are there to shoot the interior of a rusting old boat? Not that many, as it turns out.
So, there you have it. If you like B-movie horror with a mostly competent cast, you could do worse than this show. The psychological and philosophical underpinnings of the show are thin at best, but some effectively freaky things happen, and if you're in the mood for a short-term commitment, "The River's" two-month run, unlike the Amazon, isn't all that long.