‘The River’ Pilot Recap: “There’s Magic Out There!”

I thought that I’d dislike ‘The River’. I’m only a casual “found footage” genre fan, and I don’t really care for ‘Paranormal Activity‘ or its clones. So, color me surprised when I actually enjoyed the first two episodes of ABC’s new jungle horror show, which was created by ‘Paranormal Activity’ director Oren Peli.

Dr. Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood) has gone missing. After hosting a nature show for 22 years, the famed explorer-scientist disappeared somewhere on the Amazon River. No one knew what happened to him… until now. A homing beacon has been activated, and a team (including his wife and adult son) scramble to find the missing man.

In order to play along with the found-footage aspect of the show, the rescue team is followed by cameras every step of the way as they attempt to make a new TV show out of the search for Emmet Cole. This calls for a very eclectic, yet very stereotypical group of characters.

There’s Emmet’s wife Tess (Leslie Hope, aka Teri Bauer from ’24’), who holds out some hope that they’ll find her husband alive. She, like so many of the others who come aboard for the voyage, may have some secrets of her own regarding why she really wants to find her husband. Lincoln (Joe Anderson) is Emmet’s son. He used to accompany his father on numerous adventures when he was young, but he’s all but given up hope that his dad will be found alive.

Clark Quietly (Paul Blackthorne) is a television producer along for the ride – and he’s also the token English-accented character. The TV network will pay for the expedition so long as the team can capture it all on camera. Kurt Brynildson (Thomas Kretschmann) is the security for the trip. He’s the dude who’s brought along a bag of guns and speaks in military jargon. Lena Landry (Eloise Mumford) provides a love interest for Lincoln, along with some mysterious motives. She’s the daughter of a cameraman who went missing when Emmet disappeared. She’s searching for her dad too, but there’s a lot more going on than she’s letting us know. Finally, there are a couple of cameramen to round out the cast, such as A.J. (Shaun Parkes), who is always trying to get “the shot.”

The series had a two-episode premiere on Tuesday, which gives us some insight into what we can expect throughout its season. Since it’s a found-footage show, we only get what the cameramen are able to capture. Once they actually find Emmet’s ship, we also get a video feed from the dozens of security cameras on the boat, which are all conveniently placed to capture each and every important conversation. Not to mention the image captured by these security cameras is one of the best I’ve ever seen. It’s like movies and TV shows don’t know that most security cameras come out blurry and indistinct in real life. No matter. We need to see what’s going on and this is a perfect excuse.

The show has a strong ‘Lost’ vibe. Mysteries aplenty pile up as the group finds Emmet’s boat but no one on it. The first two episodes hint that the series will play out more like a rudimentary ‘X-Files’ in the jungle. In the first episode, the group finds what can only be described as an angry spirit that likes to drink blood sealed away in the hull of Emmet’s ship. It’s a good thing that the daughter of the resident mechanic is also somewhat of a medium. She knows about all the local legends, and she knows they’re in danger once they started heading down into uncharted waters to find Emmet.

At first, I wondered how the show would keep the hunter/hunted storyline going throughout the whole season. I fully expected that the blood-sucking spirit would stay around, like the Smoke Monster on ‘Lost’, terrorizing the crew episode after episode. Yet, the group banded together and figured out how to neutralize the threat by watching some mysterious tapes that had been shot by Emmet before he disappeared. The tapes show Emmet walking on water and controlling fire with his hands, among other things. His catchphrase on his TV show was “There’s magic out there!” It appears that he’s found real magic, but it’s very dark in nature.

In the second episode, the group tries to follow the trail that the tapes lead them down. They hope to find Emmet by retracing his steps. This is where the bigger picture of the series comes into play. I wonder if this is going to be a “case of the week” show, with a new mysterious force that the group has to overcome in each episode. After dispatching the blood-sucking spirit, they come in contact with an angry ghost that may or may not be a child that wants its mommy. It’s all very basic horror, but it’s still fun. When they come across a tree in the middle of the jungle with dirty, decomposing dolls tied to it, I laughed. Dolls are always used for cheap scares in horror movies, and it’s no different here. The episode even throws in a few blinking dolls for good measure.

If ‘The River’ seems to follow every horror movie trope ever conceived, why did I enjoy it? I think I like the actors, and I especially love the mysterious backstory about Emmet and how he disappeared. It makes me think back to ‘Lost’ when we got to watch the old Dharma tapes every now and then. Those were always the most exciting and intriguing parts of the show to me. Now we get to watch as Emmet Cole discovers dark magical powers that no one knew existed. Bruce Greenwood is great in the flashback tapes as a man who seems to be slowly going mad with each new thing he discovers. The mystery about what happened to him grabs me more than, say, the mystery of ‘Alcatraz’ and its prisoners returning. I’ll keep going with ‘The River’ for now. It’s a harmless escape, with a detailed and shadowy backstory.

What about you? What did you think of the premiere? Hate it or love it, let us know in the Comments below.


  1. It didn’t grab me. Aaron and I are reversed in our opinions of this and Alcatraz.

    The found-footage staging was pretty cheesy, and the guy playing Lincoln is a really lousy actor. The show also seems to be trying way too hard to play up the Lost-like mystery. I don’t know, it didn’t work for me. I don’t plan to watch again.

    Oh, FYI, those weren’t security cameras on the ship. They were TV cameras for Emmet’s reality show. The boat was rigged up like the Big Brother house, hence the editing room.

  2. Super-VHS

    I like the concept/story, but absolutely hate the style.

    Needs more Nigel Thornberry (because Bruce Greenwood is awesome.)

    A lotta little things add up to a whole lot of annoying. Particularly don’t like the main character or his love interest.

    Also, I think the show would work much better if it were filmed/edited a la “District 9”. (Documentary style, but with moments of more traditional hand-held camerawork.) Peli’s PA style is just… infuriating. Can’t see half of what’s going on. And it necessitates lapses in logic to crudely fit the formula.

    There are only six more episodes, making a total of eight hours for the entire season. The finale airs on March 20. A short, tightly plotted, season might be one of the only reasons “The River” works. I guess we’ll see.

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