I have a feeling The River may be the Mitt Romney of television shows. It has all the makings of a great series, but like Romney, inching ever closer toward the Republican nomination while at the same time moving further away from being elected president, The River is telling better stories while completely wearing out its basic premise. What a great analogy.
I’m assuming the Magus will find Emmett within the next couple of weeks**, considering that its finding members of his crew strewn up and down the Amazon. This week they stumble upon a g-g-g-ghost ship, with none other than Lena’s father, Tobias Beecher — who’s found himself in another sort of prison hahahaha that’s not a joke — trapped onboard. This turns out to be really fortunate, as it comes at a time when Lena’s really feeling the loss of her dad. Russ (Lee Tergesen isn’t really playing Beecher) was Emmett’s cameraman on The Undiscovered Country, but whenever anyone ever talks about Emmett, or how desperate they are to find him, Russ for some reason gets lost in the shuffle. Lena’s taken to long bouts of sitting up deck and playing her accordion to deal with the pain.
(**And the next few weeks may be the only chance the show’s got, considering its ratings.)
Lena and the rest of the crew find Russ aboard the Exodus, a ship appearing out of the fog and bringing with it much needed spare parts. Spare parts to get the Magus’ engine working again, after being run aground by another ship, on this unusually high-trafficked stretch of the river. The crew of the Exodus seem very friendly. And in return for their generosity, Tess and the others invite them to dinner, which the Exodus crew are very eager to take them up on. But while they’re eating, Security Chief Kurt spots two of the crew talking about getting everyone over to their ship and all manners of related skulduggery. And when Kurt pulls the Exodus captain aside and tells him he and friends best make their way back to their ship DOUBLE TIME QUICK, he turns into a monster or something and transports him to the other ship. I think. So their all ghosts, doomed to forever sail the Amazon, until they’re able to find some poor souls to replace them. The reasons for all of this are never really gone into. Which is both a little frustrating and a little refreshing. Frustrating because we’re just asked to accept it. Refreshing because, since they’re never explained, we don’t have to sit through Jahel and those dead eyes of hers explaining some obscure myth or legend. So you give a little, you get a little.
By the time Kurt shows up on the ship, Lena’s already there, having gone over earlier with Jonas after the two of them see a shadowy figure watching the two of them from one of the other ship’s belowdecks portholes. That shadowy figure turns out to be Lena’s dad, and the two of them spend a bit of time hugging and tearing up, and also not realizing the gravity of their situation. At this point in time, Lena doesn’t know that her dad’s dead, DOOMED TO FOREVER SAIL THE AMAZON. But still, she finds him looking a little roughed up, stuck in the hold of this ship, and I’m not seeing a red flags being waved. But once they see Kurt, they realize something’s not right, and try breaking out of the ship’s hold. This is where the episode begins to wear a little thin.
One of the Exodus crew tells Tess that they’ve got an accurate map of this section of the river, and why don’t they pop on over to the other ship, just for a few minutes, to get it. Well, they do, and Tess ends up the third the newest member of the Exodus’ CREW OF THE DAMNED. Lincoln and Snape realize that something’s amiss and mount a rescue mission. Now, this entire time, A.J. is running around the ship, following them or walking right in front of them, in all his gear, with that damn camera in their face. I understand the show has painted him as that guy whose attitude is, “Who cares? I got the shot.” But, really? Everyone’s packing heat, getting ready to go to this other ship, ready to KILL PEOPLE, and he’s running around with his camera? Yes, these people are making a TV show. And if there’s one thing reality television has taught us, it’s that networks will film all sorts of human suffering and repackage it as entertainment. But there’s got to come a point where these people are facing such weird — not to mention life-threatening — stuff, and they’ll put the cameras down and say, “Let’s just focus on getting through this without getting killed.” Especially when the crew’s split up, and it’s completely possible half of them are dead. But then again, Toddlers & Tiaras has been on the air for five seasons, so what the hell do I know?
There are a lot of parallels between The River and Lost. Forget the fact that both shows share Oahu as a filming location. After you hear everyone on board the Magus — sorry, just Jahel — talk about ancient tribes living in the jungle and the source of all magic — aptly referred to as “the source” — you begin to think you’ve heard all this before. But forget all that for a second. I think that if you put the mystery aside, at its core The River has a lot more in common with Battlestar Galactica. Why, you ask? Well, you’ve got a small group of people cut off from the rest of society. The deeper into the jungle they go, the weirder the stuff popping out at them becomes. Their situation becomes desperate, and cracks in their morality begin to appear.
Overall, I thought “A Better Man” was much better than last week’s “Los Ciegnos,” although it highlighted a number of problems the series is still suffering from. One of those is Jahel. The show’s use of her was the clumsiest it’s ever been, as we watched her attempt to explain the tribe-of-the-week the crew had run afoul of by jumping in Lincoln’s face, out of the shadows with a Tarot deck. Lincoln’s response seemed to be, “The hell?” and wasn’t much unlike our own. It’s awkward and always feels like it’s been shoehorned into the scene, but her “Oooh! Oooh! Oooh! Pick me!” attitude wouldn’t be so hard to stomach if she could find it within herself to talk about something other than magic. Although this week wasn’t as bad, characterization is one of the problems the show generally suffers from. But just when I think the characters are beginning to move beyond the boxes the show stuffed them in in the pilot, they go out and do something like take their guitars and accordions out and start singing songs, because what the hell?
But there was one thing I really liked about this week’s episode, and think the show could be so much better if it expounded on these themes a little more. Introducing Jonas — one of Emmet Cole’s cameramen who’s gettin’ his Peabody — into the mix I thought was a good idea, and not because he came along at just the right time, when, as Tess says, the crew needs a win (it turns out he can’t remember anything so it’s a moot point anyway). But because the crew almost immediately recognized what a threat he was to the rest of them and decided to pitch him overboard. I thought it was interesting to see the crew get the eff real, in a kind of show in which characters choose some of the worst times to make moral stands. Everyone turning their back on Jonas felt right. And he came off as kind of a douchebag, so, you know…
Still, even this side of things proved problematic. I’m not sure there was a single person out there who wasn’t rolling their eyes when they saw that Jonas had captured the dying tribesman’s soul inside his cellphone. Seriously? And once Jonas saw that everyone on board the Magus had turned against him, he was pretty quick to throw himself on his sword and wrap that noose back around his neck. And this was five minutes after begging everyone not to make him go back out there. So, the show is still trying to figure out exactly how real people act. It’s getting some of the scary stuff down — the birds and the roaches this week were nice touches — but it’s only scratching the surface on how these people would react to it all.
Wellll, this week’s episode was not so great. Which is kind of surprising, after the pilot showed us that The River was capable of some pretty cool stuff. And “Los Ciegnos” had some cool stuff in it, it’s just that the show doesn’t know how to present it. Mainly because at this point it’s still populated with Post-it notes with things like “hot female lead” and “hardass” written on them instead of actual characters.
And while I can deal with “hot female lead,” a few of the others kind of have me rolling my eyes. The show’s biggest repeat offender has to be Jahel, who’s comes off as the answer to the unasked question, rattling off the supernatural significance behind every twig or bug the crew steps on. What a tortured effing existence that girl must live, with those dead eyes of hers. I’ll be happy just to hear her talk about something other than magic. But judging from the show’s ratings, it’s entirely possible it will have been canceled before then.
Coming in behind Jahel is Kurt Brynildson, who handles security on the boat. You may know him as the guy with the guns who’s always glaring at everyone, who’s obviously up to no good with that sat phone he keeps stashed in his bag. If there’s a bigger mystery to what this guy is doing on the expedition, then the show should drop hints about it. I just wish he was able to do it and not come across as so one-dimensional. And if that’s as complex as some of the characters are going to be, I wish the show would give it’s subject matter due deference. This week’s episode had the gang stumbling onto land claimed (Owned? I don’t know.) by a tribe of natives called the Morcegos, or the Guardians of the Forest, while searching for Emmet. They wake up one morning to find that their camp has been visited in the night, with the tribesmen having left small altars of stones in the night. And very mysteriously, the crew begin losing their sight.
Eventually the Morcegos make their way to the Magus, pounding on the doors and windows while the blind crew cowers inside. Lena, Kurt, and A.J., the only ones unafflicted, take off into the jungle to hunt down the plant that will reverse the blindness. And this is where the episode most noticeably stumbles. Most characters in shows like these are supposed to grow, hopefully becoming better people than they were when we first met them. We learn about who they are, and then watch them as they confront and overcome their fears. So when we learn in the beginning of the episode that A.J. was a miner before becoming a cameraman, and that he had once been trapped inside a mine that had collapsed, a giant neon sign floating above him began flashing: PAY ATTENTION. And it comes as no surprise when we see him have shimmy his way underground when he finds the tree they’re looking for, after leaving Lena and Kurt for dead of course. Yes, A.J. should make the right choice, jump down that hole and get the magic plant that will give everyone their sight back. It’s just that that journey should last more than 20 minutes. But then again, I’m an English major. So what the hell do I know?
We see similar problems on the Magus, with producer Clark running out, putting himself in between the Morcegos and everyone else like a human shield. This is the guy who, just last week, was smirking to himself, rubbing his hands in anticipation as he watched that look of uncertainty wash over Lincoln’s face when he heard his father might still be alive. Sure, the revelation (it wasn’t a revelation) that he and Tess used to have something going on the side makes things a little more believable. But only a little.
The biggest problem with all of this — race-to-the-finish character development — was that the episode took its scariest element, the Morcegos, and relegated them to a few fleeting glimpses at the edges of the cameras that ship is strung up with, instead focusing on the House-style mystery of everyone going blind. And we all know the House-style mystery is really no mystery at all. There’s always some magic plant or whatever. Hopefully, going forward, the show won’t always resort to taking the easy way out. I think there’s an opportunity for a really good uber-arc about what the ultimate fate of these people is. I noticed that in the very beginning of the episode, after introducing the premise and the search for Dr. Cole, we see the words, “This is the footage they left behind…” implying that these people, too, go missing. That story is going to be a lot more interesting than those tree roots.
I enjoyed The River — ABC’s new horror/found footage/thriller/docudrama from Paranormal Activity director Oren Peli — almost in spite of myself. I think a big part of that was that I wasn’t watching it in a theater filled with idiot 13-year olds, laughing, throwing popcorn and Twittering each other. Another part of it was that, for all its problems — and The River’s got its share — the show just works.
This is kind of ironic for a few reasons. But before we get to that, let’s start at the beginning. In the distant past. 2004, when ABC premiered Lost. For all the joy that show brought into our lives, its success kind of turned into the bane of our existence. Serialized mysteries — in the vain of Twin Peaks — became the hot new thing, and we, the unlucky viewer, drew the short straw at the bukkake party as networks through show after show right in our face. Well, as it turned out, that Lost magic was a hard thing to recreate, and how many of those other shows to we even remember the names of?
The reasons for this are many. But two big ones are a focus on the show’s central mystery over its characters, or a premise that really doesn’t lend itself to a show that’s going to last six or seven seasons. And now we have The River, which is attempting to cash in on the whole serialized thing as well as the found footage craze, which Oren Peli brought back from the brink in 2007 with Paranormal Activity. The show follows Dr. Emmet Cole, who along with his wife Tess and son Lincoln starred for 22 years as the host of a Discovery Channel-style nature documentary show called The Undiscovered Country. While sailing the Amazon River, Cole and his ship go missing, and after six months of searching he’s given up for dead. That’s the end of the story, until the beacon on Cole’s ship goes off, and Tess tries mounting a rescue expedition. Cole’s network agrees to foot the bill, under one condition: Lincoln has to go along and the network gets complete access to the both of them, filming the entire thing for a new show. Cool, huh? Well, potentially.
In tonight’s pilot, there’s (understandably) a lot of setup for a show lasting six or seven years. And even though it’s kind of necessary, it also kind of works against it. Since there’s so little time to get into any sort of character-building, everyone stays inside their stereotype. Tess, confronted with the possibility that her husband is still alive, almost drags Lincoln with her to South America. Lincoln, of course, thinks the whole thing’s a bad idea and wants to put the whole ordeal behind him. The others we meet offer little else. The producer and his cameraman BFF are concerned only with… you guessed it,
Frank Stallone producing the show and “getting the shot.” We’re also introduced to Lena Landry (played by Eloise Mumford) — whose father was with Cole and also went missing on that fateful voyage — because, you know, sexual tension.
Once everyone gets on the river and finds Cole’s ship, they find a stockpile of tapes showing Cole (who is never not being filmed I guess) getting into all sorts of voodoo witchcraft. Walking on water, breaking bread with shaman witch doctors and running from evil spirits killing his crew. Tess, Lincoln, et al vow to go through every one of them and follow every last clue until they’ve found Cole. I have a feeling they’re only gonna have time for about one a week.
So, why, despite all this, do I think the show may still have a shot? Well, it’s still kind of hard to nail down. The Amazon River is a great setting for a show like this, and the subject matter — the magic and voodoo craziness of South America — does feel original. And in tonight’s second episode, we get a feel for what the actual series is going to be like. It’s an approach that lends itself well to the found footage format, as long as you’re willing to believe that everything and everyone on that boat are mic’d and have cameras on them at all times. It is what it is. I’m hoping that like all the faux-documentaries out there (The Office, Modern Family), it’ll eventually fade into the background. For now though, it’s a good way to get in a few scares, so there’s a little give and take.
The show’s still got some work to do. But there’s something there that could turn out to be pretty good. Whether or not people will stick around and wait for that to develop is another question. For all its success, I think Lost kind of screwed things up for shows like it that came later. People don’t have the patience for storylines that take years to play out they way they did for Lost and other shows (really only Battlestar Galactica). After about 40 minutes my wife bailed out. So The River could turn out to be just another floating carcass, banging up against Lost’s hull. Or it could be a hit. In any case, I imagine we’ll have a moderate amount of fun finding out which it’ll be.