February 8, 2012


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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A lot can happen between the creation of a TV pilot in the spring and production of episodes for the regular season:  a writing/producing team is hired, audience focus groups weigh in, networks and studios (which may have had their own turnover in the off-season) give plenty of notes, both helpful and otherwise, and critics begin to rear their ugly heads.  The results can include changes to tone, pace, casting and even story.  Here at THE SKED, we’re going to look past the pilots and present reviews of the first regular episodes of this year’s new series as well.
Previously… on THE RIVER:  A small boat called the Magus heads up the Amazon, in search of vanished TV nature series host Dr. Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood).  The crew is a mix of Cole’s family and friends–wife Tess (Leslie Hope), son Lincoln (Joe Anderson) and Lena (Eloise Mumford), the daughter of his trusted cameraman–and a TV crew headed by Clark (Paul Blackthorne) that’s documenting the search.  Also along are mercenary Brynildson (Thomas Kretschman) providing security, and the boat’s engineer (Daniel Zacapa) and his adolescent daughter Jahel (Paula Gaitan).  There are plenty of tensions among this group as they follow breadcrumbs of clues they find in the videotapes Cole has left behind.  And along the way, at every stop they encounter all manner of supernatural phenomena.  The entire show is supposedly edited together from the footage shot by the documentary crew itself.

Episode 2:  Although The River aired as a “2-hour premiere,” it was actually the original pilot with the first regular episode appended.  The building blocks of exposition and mythology having been established in the pilot, that second hour gives a good picture of what the series is planning to be.  Clearly it’ll be quite a while before the Magus finds Emmet Cole, and some of the show’s episodic adventures will only tangentially involve the search for him.

In the 2d hour episode, written by Executive Producers Michael Green and Zack Estrin, and directed by pilot director Jaune Collet-Serra, some kind of magic CG bug flew into Jahel’s mouth and temporarily possessed her with Cole’s spirit (and Bruce Greenwood’s voice).  The spirit tried to talk the group into going home, but of course then there’d be no show, so they ignored him/it and pressed on.  Something the spirit said seemed to indicate that Cole was still alive but being held in captivity, which set the Magus to this week’s part of the Amazon.  Cole wasn’t there, but they did find the ghost of a dead colonial family’s child.  The site where the girl drowned was surrounded by dolls who sometimes came alive, and since the dead girl missed her dead mother, in her loneliness she took Tess as a substitute.  (This storyline oddly echoed The Woman In Black, which opened in theatres last weekend.) 
The hour had a few creepy moments, but it never made the use that it should have of those dolls, which didn’t do much more than open their eyes and stare (limited series CG budget?).  Watching Leslie Hope get pulled under muddy water was a good deal less frightening.  The episode also made clear some of the limitations of the show’s concept.  Since the show-within-the-show is being filmed by a professional TV crew, the “found footage” gimmick doesn’t mean much (unlike, say, the ingenious use of technical imitations in Paranormal Activity 3), because it all looks like any other TV show except for the shaky hand-held camerawork used to accentuate panic in the action sequences, and there’s already overuse of genre cliches like images suddenly cutting to static or flaring in the face of the supernatural.  Also, the conventions of series television mean that the regular characters aren’t in all that much mortal danger until we get near the season finale, which lessens any suspense, and thus far, the relationships between those characters are none too scintillating.
Since the hunt for Emmet Cole is a very loose underpinning for the series at this point (this week we got a B story suggesting that it’s Lena, not Lincoln, who’s the “chosen one” that will have to fight evil to rescue Cole), each episode of The River will mostly have to fend for itself, based on the strength of that week’s story.  This episode was medium-scary, and the show will have to do better if the repeated scenes of people stumbling through jungle or looking off the side of the boat and exclaiming “What the hell was that?!?” aren’t to get tiresome.
Original Verdict:  Potential DVR Alert
Pilot + 1:  Beware of Shaky-Cam Seasickness

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."