ABC, 7 February 2012
A TV crew go in search of lost explorer and TV presenter Emmet Cole in an uncharted area of the Amazon, with his wife and son along for the ride…
As a limited (ABC have only committed to eight episodes) quest series, The River has some dramatic promise. With Paranormal Activity’s Oren Peli and Steven Spielberg involved it also threatens to become ‘Poltergeist on water’. Whether the show’s setting and characters can allow for a longer run is something of a doubtful question.
The opening episode sees a team set off in search of Emmet Cole (the always worth watching Bruce Greenwood), a Steve Irwin-type explorer/TV presenter famous for his 1980s show The Undiscovered Country that made stars of him and his young family. He’s vanished in mysterious circumstances somewhere in the Amazon, but that just becomes an excuse for his estranged producer Clark (Paul Blackthorne) to make another documentary about the rescue attempt. To sex up the show he’s roped in Cole’s wife, Tess (24’s Leslie Hope), and Cole’s now adult son, Lincoln (Joe Anderson).
The first episode deftly sets up these relationships and introduces the father and daughter engineering team who’ll keep the boat running, the two cameramen recording events (augmented by a seemingly endless series of remote cameras), a security guy (King Kong’s Thomas Kretschmann) and Lincoln’s childhood friend and daughter of Cole’s one-time camerman Lena (Eloise Mumford).
The sparks that fly between this lot are fairly predictable and rote, but that’s always likely to be a problem in a first episode. Greenwood is represented through clips from tapes he’s left behind (that hint at much weirdness) and older footage. Setting a show in one time zone is clearly no longer enough. Just as Alcatraz has its 1960s and present day storylines and Lost jumped around in the off-island stories, so The River features regular snippets from Cole’s late-1980s TV show in which he put his family front and centre. This technique was pioneered by the little-remembered 2001 Showtime series Leap Years that followed a group of friends and their shifting relationships in three separate time periods (1993, 2001 and the then-future 2008), but is now much more commonplace.
The first episode sees the crew harassed by a little-seen (by the viewer) ghost-figure while the focus is on setting things up rather than telling a stand-alone tale. Much better is the second instalment that sees the team get off the boat for a bit of trudging through the jungle (and they’d better be careful not to fall into the trap of The Walking Dead and Lost that both spent too much time wandering back and forth through trees). The trump card here is a Colonial graveyard decorated with spooky dolls. Soon we’re treated to a retread of Poltergeist (but in a puddle), and some nice spooky touches. The ‘found footage’ approach (so hackneyed now, this far on from The Blair Witch Project, but nonetheless a recent hit for Peli in Paranormal Activity) works well here, but might be difficult (and unnecessarily tricksy) to sustain for long. The dolls hanging from the trees, however, strike just the right note of creepiness. If the remaining six episodes can build on the achievements of the second, this journey up river might just be worth taking.
Verdict: An interesting idea that improves in the second episode, but the shadow of Lost hangs heavy over The River.
Episode 1 ‘Magus (part 1)’: 6/10
Episode 2 ‘Marbeley (part 2)’: 7/10
Brian J. Robb