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TV Review: ABC’s ‘The River’ is Original But Not Always Effective

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CHICAGO – Two hours of ABC’s found footage horror drama tonight, “The River,” from Executive Producer Steven Spielberg, should at least do one thing for the show — weed out those not interested in following it long-term. Personally, I think it would have been wiser to lower viewers into this bizarre body of water slowly instead of with back-to-back episodes as the double dip amplifies the show’s flaws instead of leaving them wanting more. Having said that, network TV viewers complain all the time about how the titans of television aren’t willing to take risks any more. “The River” is a risk and deserves credit purely for originality. The execution needs to improve if they want to turn that credit into anything more substantial.

HollywoodChicago.com Television Rating: 3.0/5.0
Television Rating: 3.0/5.0

Spielberg executive produces with an incredibly talented behind-the-scenes crew, especially for you horror movie fans out there. Oren Peli (“Paranormal Activity”) is the showrunner with Michael Green (“Heroes”) and the two co-produce with Jason Blum (who produced all three “PA” movies). The first episode is directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (“House of Wax,” “Orphan”). That’s a heck of a horror pedigree for a show on any network, much less one on ABC. It’s the kind of behind-the-scenes crew one might expect to find on cable and a good sign that the networks are willing to hire the right people to find the next original hit.

The River
The River
Photo credit: ABC

Like “PA” or “Apollo 18” or “The Blair Witch Project,” “The River” is found footage fiction. The conceit this time is that the world famous host of “The Undiscovered Country,” Dr. Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood of “Star Trek”), has gone missing. His family refuses to give up on him and so they track him to the Amazon where they find his boat and some truly supernatural nonsense. The footage aspect plays into the fiction because it is assumed that TV audiences would love to watch the search for Cole and so a crew tags along. How on Earth they’re going to explain that the crew is still filming after continuous supernatural nightmares is probably going to get harder to believe as the show goes on but the film crew aspect of the first two hours isn’t as annoying as you might think.

The River
The River
Photo credit: ABC

The cast of characters that trek into the Amazon are led by Cole’s whiny son Lincoln (Joe Anderson of “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 1”), a young man who never really connected with his dad, and his mother Tess (Leslie Hope of “24”). They are driven by emotion, trying to find their loved one and refusing to give up despite all signs that they should. But they can’t pay for a rescue mission. So, the TV crew comes along, including Cole’s former producer Clark (Paul Blackthorne) and the lovely Lena (Eloise Mumford). Of course, the boat needs a captain (Thomas Kretschmann) and it also has a mechanic (Daniel Zacapa) and his daughter (Paulina Gaitan) along for the ride.

In the premiere, the Coles and their crew find the good doctor’s boat. Of course, it features a lot of creepy sounds and most of them are coming from a locked room in the center of the vessel. What’s in the room? And might someone have sealed it up on purpose? Of course, the family thinks it might be their loved one and so they open it. Bad idea. Supernatural creatures, possessions, turning baby doll heads — “The River” holds nothing back in its first two hours, trying desperately to get your skin to crawl.

The River
The River
Photo credit: ABC

And some of it works. There are definitely effective moments in “The River” but I find it hard to believe that the mood of this piece can be maintained as commercials with the Coca-Cola polar bears play in the middle of it. Imagine a “Paranormal Activity” movie with trailers thrown in every fifteen minutes. It would kill the mood. Good horror is all about building tension and maintaining it until the audience can’t handle it any more. The structure of TV forces the writers of “The River” to play with horror in a unique way, almost as if they are trying to make a mini-movie between every break. But while the show has effective moments of horror, they never quite build the way you want them to in a cohesive piece due to the creators feeling the need to get at least one major scare between every break.

Am I saying horror can never really work on network TV? I might be. Would “True Blood” or “American Horror Story” have been nearly as effective on CBS? Of course not. At the very least, producers of a show need to recognize the limitations of commercial-driven TV and go for more character than horror. The people on “The River” feel like afterthoughts and that’s a serious flaw. We need to care about the Coles and their quest to be truly captivated by what happens to them. Right now, “The River” is an interesting experiment, the results of which are still a little murky.

“The River” stars Joe Anderson, Leslie Hope, Bruce Greenwood, Paul Blackthorne, Eloise Mumford, Daniel Zacapa, Thomas Kretschmann, and Paulina Gaitan. It was executive produced by Oren Peli, Jason Blum, and Steven Spielberg. It premieres on ABC on Tuesday, February 7th, 2012 at 8pm CST.

HollywoodChicago.com content director Brian Tallerico

By BRIAN TALLERICO
Content Director
HollywoodChicago.com
brian@hollywoodchicago.com

Dave's picture

The River

Another load of “found footage” schlock. “Creature From The Black Lagoon” vs. “Apocalypse Now” via “Blair Witch Project” wherein annoying characters bereift of judgement skills never analyze their situation because they’re too busy reacting to the funhouse pop-up scares and not looking at their own recordings — The challenges of the jungle seem to be muddy shoes and old teddy bears (an actual Amazonia expedition would face MUCH scarier Tropical Obstacles such as leeches, disease, insects, wildlife, etc.) and our plucky adventurers seem able to dispense with mind-boggling paranormal threats with ease (toss it overboard — why didn’t WE think of that, save a lot of welding…) while bumping into each other and NOT getting their recently-sutured wounds (closed up in the dark) infected in the river (which is conviently parasite/predator free). And they thought this was a THREE HOUR CRUISE!

Brenda Brady's picture

You got it!

I agree completely with your review. The effects were fine if not predictable, but there was such a lack of connection to the characters. I especially found the son to be unlikeable. I’m sure I am supposed to like this guy, but I don’t. I find myself laughing at how easily these folks accept the ridiculous claims that a teenage girl is making to explain what is going on. It is also so hard to believe that the “documentary team” effect is real…how could there be SO MANY cameras placed everywhere on the boat and in perfect working condition? But, like you, it wasn’t as irritating as it could get to be in the future. I also agree with the back to back episodes. LOST used to make me crazy at the end of each episode. This show didn’t leave me with any feeling like that. I wasn’t even aware that the first episode was actually trying to hook you before “starting” the second episode. Disapointed! I will probably tune in for a few more weeks to see if I can like these people and care about what they are doing…but give me a good HOUSE marathon and I am GONE!

Paula's picture

River me this?

I thought the storyline was OK and would be willing to give it another shot (2 hrs was way too much for one night) but all that camera action makes my head swim. Also not being able to hear what was being said, then you had closed captions and when not captioned and you had the tv loud enough to hear it, you got blown away by some action or noise. Some of the acting is a little overboard (no pun intended) but hey, I’m no expert, I just think I would like it better if it was shot in a “normal” filming manner.

Ashley's picture

down the river without a paddle?

I also agree about the characters. The son, Lincoln was whiny and in the end i am not very fond of him. Even the mother annoys me. I honestly thought this show was going to be about “river people/creatures” that this crew would encounter. I do however, like the black magic storyline they are running with. I feel it leaves many open doors for them to walk through. The filming also was chosen poorly. I am not really into filming as if realty. I feel the only show that pulled that off was “the office”. Im hoping this show pulls through, i really do enjoy a good scare.

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