March 21, 2012


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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Let’s face it, “season finale” is a euphemism for what tonight’s episode of THE RIVER almost certainly was in reality:  the SS Minnow from Gilligan’s Island is more likely to make a return voyage than the Magus is of continuing to float down the Amazon.  So what went wrong with The River, a thriller launched with the combined namepower of Paranormal Activity creator Oren Peli and Steven Spielberg?

Partly it was a fundamental conceptual issue.  The River wanted to take the basic design of a show like X Files or Fringe, in which supernatural craziness of the week is balanced against an overarching “mythology” storyline that’s dipped into from time to time, while adding to it the trendy Paranormal Activity-ish “found footage” visual style.  The River‘s set-up was that the search for Dr. Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood) was being financed by a TV company planning to show the hunt as a reality show, and that producer Clark Quietly (Paul Blackthorne) had therefore put cameras absolutely everywhere on the Magus, so that literally every inch of the boat was covered by at least one camera–at least until the weekly demon or ghost disrupted the image to static, as it always did.  (Supernatural beings are hell on TV reception.)
This made for the usual annoying hand-held shaky-cam visuals, plus constant changes in “picture quality” as the editing switched from regular camera to surveillance camera to whatever.  But River constantly cheated on its own concept, with everpresent background music and conventional TV editing that disrupted the illusion and made the viewing experience the worst of both worlds, amateurish and overly slick at once.  (The fact that the show faded out every 7 or 8 minutes for a commercial break didn’t help the illusion either.)
More seriously, The River‘s thriller plotlines were hackneyed and familiar.  Tonight’s finale, written by Executive Producer Michael Green and Co-EP Aron Eli Coleite, and directed by Gary Fleder, was a representative example:  having recovered Emmet alive in the previous episode, this episode attempted a shock by “killing” his son Lincoln (Joe Anderson).  But of course, the show being the genre it is, he didn’t have to stay dead for long, and spiritually gifted Jahel (Paulina Gaitan) and Lincoln’s mother Tess (Leslie Hope) soon brought him back to life.  Except, as anyone who’s read “Pet Sematary” knows, no one who returns from the dead is quite himself, and “Lincoln” was possessed by the murderous spirit of the river.  This led to a second half that was so heavily indebted to The Exorcist that William Friedkin should have affixed a copyright notice, as “Lincoln” buckled his body in half, writhed around, and spoke in nasty tongues en route to being cured.  Along the way we got more never-to-be-explained looks at the mysterious mark hot girl Lena (Eloise Mumford) had on her neck. 
In the horror genre, lack of originality can be forgiven if a familiar trope is used with some distinctiveness or a new spin, but this was where The River really sank.  There wasn’t an interesting character on the show, and since everyone was constantly being poised as potentially having hidden motives or being possessed by demons, no one had any depth or likability.  The scripts were doggedly straightforward, without a hint of humor or surprise. 
The River wasn’t a complete waste (the final shots of tonight’s episode were creepy in the right fun way), and it might have worked well as a 90-minute movie.  But superficial, borrowed thrills aren’t enough to bring an audience back every week, and viewers understandably preferred to stay on dry land.

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."