February 7, 2012


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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Disclaimer:  Network pilots now in circulation are not necessarily in the form that will air in the Fall.  Pilots are often reedited and rescored, and in some cases even recast or reshot.  So these critiques shouldn’t be taken as full TV pilot reviews, but rather as a guide to the general style and content of the new shows coming your way.
THE RIVER –  Midseason on ABC:  Potential DVR Alert

THE RIVER is a solid sleeper, a pleasurably nerve-rattling B-movie creepfest set on the Amazon.  ABC is holding it for midseason, where at the very least it should stand out from other network arrivals.

As every promo will surely be heralding, The River comes from Steven Spielberg’s Amblin production company and producer Oren Peli, of Paranormal Activity fame.  Peli’s involvement is more obvious, because the show uses the same “found footage” format as the Paranormal movies, where everything we’re watching is supposedly filmed either by the show’s characters or surveillance cameras (this illusion only goes so far, unless there’s an invisible helicopter around for a few of the shots).  The backstory of the premise is that America’s beloved TV explorer Dr Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood), who had traveled around the world for 20 years with his wife Tess (Leslie Hope), his son Lincoln (Joe Anderson) and an ever-present camera crew, suddenly decided to head up the Amazon on a small boat without his family.  When the pilot begins, he’s been missing for 6 months, and Tess and Lincoln, funded through a TV show to be produced by Cole’s sometime partner Clark (Paul Blackthorne), set out in search of him. 
Naturally there are complications:  Lincoln has daddy issues (Emmet may have cared more about his show than his son); Clark may not be trustworthy, and that goes for the group’s head of security Brynildson (Thomas Kretschman) too; Lena, the daughter of another missing colleague (Eloise Mumford) knows more than she’s saying.  More bothersome, the young daughter (Paula Gaitan) of the boat’s engineer (Daniel Zacapa) senses… evil.  And it won’t come as a surprise that she’s not wrong.  Before too long, the handheld cameras are shorting out, there are weird rustling noises in the trees, and the question becomes:  just what was Emmet Cole looking for?
Peli contributed to the story of The River, but the script is by Michael Green (Heroes) and Michael R. Perry (the TV version of Dead Zone and last summer’s oddball Persons Unknown).  They capably deliver some old-fashioned spookiness, and lightly sketch in potential plot and character complications for later episodes.  The pilot is directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, who helmed Unknown with Liam Neeson a few months ago, and had previously done the notably kinky horror movie Orphan (watch out, she’s not really an orphan!); those incessantly shaky hand-held cameras can get awfully annoying if overdone, but Collet-Serra keeps it stylistically under control.  Even though a show like this isn’t exactly a showcase for actors, Anderson is a strong lead, and Blackthorne a practiced hand at untrustworthiness.  (It appears that we’ll mostly see Greenwood in videotapes he’s left behind, although presumably that might change.)
The River could easily become unintentional comedy–a couple of episodes too many of people peering off the side of the boat and muttering “What is that?” and the game will be lost.  (At some point, it’ll also need to show more of its monsters than the fragmented glimpses we get in the pilot.)  Plus it’s a difficult series to schedule, especially on ABC, which now that Lost is gone relies mostly on female-skewing dramas for its one-hours.  If the network and producers can find the right creative and marketing harbors for it, though, this could be a cruise worth taking.

Read more about TV’s new shows at THE SKED PILOT REPORT.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."