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There are so many moments in ABC’s The River when you want to congratulate its creators for trying a little more blatantly to be Lost than others will admit, and there are other times when you think, “Wow, Paranormal Activity on a weekly basis, with a touch of Heart of Darkness, might be interesting, too.” Quick camera cuts, people in peril, freaky and scary happenings — what’s not to like? Put them together, and you have a series that cobbles together a pretty strong rooting interest. We all need a show like this on the small screen again. But is there really a weekly series here?
The pilot of River races through the story so fast in an hour that it essentially concludes with one main mystery that could be dragged out over several episodes. Is that a problem for the show?
Maybe. But ABC gave it only an eight-episode order, so all of them will air, and given the producers’ proclamations, there will be at least some closure when those episodes end. Then, one would hope, there will be enough remaining plot points for a second season.
The premise of River is relatively simple. Dr. Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood) is a famous adventurer, naturalist and longtime television host of The Undiscovered Country. He goes missing in the Amazon, and after six months he’s presumed dead and all searches are called off. But his wife, Tess (Leslie Hope), is determined to find him. She gets a rescue expedition financed by the TV network, provided she bring along her reluctant son, Lincoln (Joe Anderson), and a camera crew. Lincoln is resistant because he’s pissed off that his father essentially raised him on television for benefit of his series but was never around for birthdays and graduations because he was always off on another adventure.
Understandable. Plus, he believes his father is dead.
The nefarious bit in River is that the head of the “rescue mission” is Clark (Paul Blackthorne), Emmet’s main producer until they had a falling-out after many contentious years. He wasn’t hired for Emmet’s Amazon adventure, and it’s clear, among other machinations, that he’s prodding his crew to play up the tension between Tess and her son. An added element is Lena (Eloise Mumford), whose cameraman father went missing with Emmet and who mysteriously has gathered clues as to where they might be stranded (also, she grew up side by side with Lincoln on the TV series, so there’s a potential love interest).
Off to the Amazon they go, and the combo of Lost, Heart of Darkness and Paranormal Activity begins to unspool at a frightening pace. Contrary to what those with ADD might think, this is not a good thing. They find Emmet’s ship rather quickly — not a spoiler given ABC’s promos — but when all kinds of craziness ensues, none of the characters seems too surprised. Perhaps because it’s all happening so fast?
Trust me, they should be surprised when freaky things happen. It’s the nature of Paranormal Activity that there are “WTF” moments galore. Normal people witnessing messed-up stuff need to say, “Holy shit, did you see that?” And more than once.
This is why the Hurley and Charlie characters worked so well on Lost. When unexplained phenomena happened on the island, they would utter some variation of: “You did see that, right? I’m not crazy, right?”
River has a couple such moments, but not nearly enough for what the characters are encountering. When there’s a Big Bad out there — and there’s one here that looks awfully similar to one on Lost — the freak-out meter needs to spike, not be calmly talked away by characters assuming strange things just happen in the Amazon.
The second episode, which will air as part of the two-hour premiere, is better in that when spooky actions happen, appropriate reactions happen as well. There’s also a bit more character development, and that helps because it’s difficult to muster much worry over people you don’t know at all.
Executive produced by Oren Peli (the Paranormal Activity films) and Michael Green (Heroes, Smallville), River is one of those series that could partly fill the hole left by Lost because it’s scary, intriguing and clever. Maybe the writers don’t feel they can slow the pace and broaden the characters given the limited run, but the show would benefit from it.
At least when you go down The River, you know it’ll reach a conclusion after a mere eight episodes, so it’s worth a look. Whether there’s a series beyond when — or if — they find Emmet is anyone’s guess.
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