Two reviews in one! Mostly because they were presented together as the pilot.
Technical aspects: C
In the 80s, Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood) starred in a wildlife/exploration/nature show along with his family: his wife, Tess (Leslie Hope,) and son Lincoln (played as an adult by Joe Anderson.) A bit later in life, he continues to go on expeditions, eventually at the expense of the relationships with his family. Six months before The River begins, he goes missing on a trip to the Amazon. Just as his family, in particular his estranged son, are coming to terms with his assumed death, a signal from his beacon is received, giving hope that he or some of his crew may be alive. The company that originally funded his show will even fund an expedition to go recover the beacon and possibly Emmet himself, but only if they can get his family and some of the rest of the original group involved with the show to go along.
Lincoln reluctantly agrees. So he; his mother; Clark (Paul Blackthorne), the producer of the old show; Lena, the daughter of a cameraman who went missing along with Emmet; Emilio (Daniel Zacapa), the mechanic of Emmet’s old ship; Jahel (Pauline Gaitan), Emilio’s daughter and assistant; Kurt (Thomas Kretschmann), a security and bodyguard; and A.J. (Shaun Parkes), the cameraman; all head off to the Amazon.
Creepy things happen from the outset, as they find the beacon underwater, with no sign of the crew. Then the ship is found along with some very disturbing tapes recorded by Emmet. Eventually things stray to the downright paranormal, with a demon spirit locked on board the ship, eventually giving Tess the belief that Emmet is still alive.
Much of the first episode is devoted to introducing the characters, which I appreciate was done with at least moderate non-awkwardness. It’s not perfect and seamless by any stretch, as there were some moments I was still very aware that I was being fed exposition. However, I can certainly imagine it being far worse.
The show is set up as being a mix between the Crocodile Hunter style nature show of Emmet Cole’s from the 80s (and I love how very 80s they make those clips feel), a found footage narrative in the style of The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity, and the reality TV show that Clark and the studio are intending this to be. I don’t know if this is intentional, but I think it’s kind of in a way a wonderful commentary on how TV has changed over the last couple decades. As a kid, I loved nothing more than the Discovery Channel and NatGeo and such, with their nature documentaries and exploration shows. Now, almost everything, including those same channels, has moved into the realm of “reality TV” and that kind of contrived drama. I like that the same progression from “educational, and people enjoy it” to “cheap and contrived drama, and people enjoy it” is visible in the fictional production company.
Episode 2 begins with Jahel being possessed by Emmet’s spirit. She realizes that he must still be alive, even though he wants them to leave for fear of them being in danger. Tess and the crew set out to try and find him, based on clues from the countless (but unorganized) tapes of his expedition. With one idea of where to go, the group sets off and finds a very creepy tree covered in children’s dolls. Lincoln even finds a childhood toy of his own there, meaning Emmet must have been through. The tree is tied to a legend about a child’s spirit that out of loneliness drowns travelers, with the dolls being an attempt to comfort her and pacify her. Once again, the paranormal legend turns out to be true, though I’ll spare the spoilers of what happens with it.
In this episode, I admittedly found the doll tree creepy. (And there’s a creepy doll… that always follows you… it’s got a ruined eye…that’s always…open… Though seriously, go download that song. Jonathan Coulton is awesome and I love that song, and yes you can get it for free legitimately.) I’m one of those people who does get kind of freaked by dolls. And I’ve heard this legend before, though they’ve taken a few liberties from the one that I know. (The one I know of is the Isla De Las Muñecas, or Island of Dolls, and is actually something of a creepy tourist destination.) But at the same time, it felt a bit like “HEY, THIS IS CREEPY! ARE YOU CREEPED OUT YET? BE CREEPED OUT.” Maybe it’s just that I watch a lot of horror, so I’m familiar with a lot of the tropes. But while dolls are pretty creepy in their own ways, it seems like just such a stock “now you’re afraid, yes?” that it felt a little lazy and uncreative. But hey, it was still pretty unsettling.
Anyway, in terms of quality, the show is pretty average. It has good points and bad points, for sure. Positives include some of the things I mentioned above, with at least somewhat competent writing in terms of character introduction and a reasonably interesting story. Unfortunately, the acting is inconsistent in quality, with some truly cringe-worthy moments but some pretty good performances as well. The effects are nothing special, but they’re passable for a TV series. Other times, the writing feels a bit lazy and like it’s just trying to force the plot forward, rather than having it develop naturally. There are some badly explained shortcuts, like insisting they’ll be able to recognize locations from Emmet's tapes, which I find ridiculous. If you’re not immensely familiar with the setting, all the trees along the Amazon river are going to look a lot like all the other trees along the Amazon river. And when the tapes are of parts of the inner jungle, not even bordering the river, it’s even more suspect that people unfamiliar with the area will know where to go to find him. There’s also some kind of shoddy research or explanations given, like with the dolls and the insistence that “well, originally dolls were used to house the spirits of the dead.” Again, I’m nit-picking based on personal interests and knowledge, but while in some cultures this is true, it’s not true of the whole damn world.
While the show probably isn’t destined to go into the annals of time as a Great Series, it does manage to be entertaining enough and have enough in the way of dangled plot threads that I’ll keep tuning in. It’s not perfect, and the flaws are pretty apparent in some cases, but it’s at least captured my interest for the time being.