When producer Steven Schneider approached Steven Spielberg about developing a new TV show, Spielberg jumped on an idea simply titled The River. The show is a TV anomaly from the mind of Oren Peli, the creator of Paranormal Activity. It’s a horror show of sorts, with a Paranormal Activity-like, found-footage style, complete with supernatural elements. Throw in the fact that it’s set in an uncharted region of the Amazon, and you’ve got the most unique show on television.
The show is as addictive as it is pulse-pounding as it is mind-bending. When longtime explorer and TV star Dr. Emmett Cole goes missing, his wife becomes obsessed with finding him. She convinces the same studio that made her family members into celebrities to fund the search in the Amazon. But there’s a catch: a film crew must go along to document every moment.
The search party descends on a remote part of the Amazon, complete with hostile personalities and questionable motives. They recover the old show’s ship The Magus, which is now a ghost ship, but Emmett Cole is nowhere to be found. Soon, strange things start happening. Birds fall from the sky, mysterious entities hunt them, and the jungle begins to willfully entangle the ship. Never has Cole’s catchphrase “There’s magic out there” been so true. To make matters worse, the man they hired for protection is secretly working for a mysterious organization, and the mechanic’s daughter seems to know too much about the dark forces that haunt them. Each episode is better than the last, and the thrills build until the final episode’s heart-wrenching climax.
What doesn’t help the show’s loyal followers is that the finale leaves on a cliff hanger, wherein the Amazon River literally reshapes itself to trap the crew of The Magus, forcing them to confront whatever “magic” still awaits them. And I can’t help but wonder what the river’s demon is trying to protect, and how or if Lena will fulfill the prophecies.
There is not a weak link among the entire cast, which is rare in television. Bruce Greenwood is a longtime film star and brings credibility to his character, while Leslie Hope is absolutely stellar as the doggedly determined Tess Cole. Lincoln Cole, played by Joe Anderson, is the true hero of the show, possessing amazing emotional depth; his portrayal is truly a revelation. Paul Blackthorne as the producer Clark Quietly is perfectly cast. Katie Featherston, of Paranormal Activity fame, even makes an appearance in a few episodes. It’s a shame that they may never produce another episode of such a phenomenal show.
What impressed me the most was the variety and depth of the stories that are interwoven through the episodes. Each episode is a unique ghost story, but part of a larger ghost story involving a Satan-like creature playing cat-and-mouse with the crew of The Magus. But with all the black magic and elements that smell faintly of witchcraft, the triumphs over the evil often involves a spiritual battle within the characters. These internal struggles climax in strangely Biblical themes: confession and acknowledgment of internal evil, redemption and renewal, and even self-sacrifice. There are overarching themes of confronting past wrongs, living with or dealing with guilt, forgiveness, and reconciliation. I was so surprised to see these struggles displayed so prominently in a television show, that I became enamored with the show even more.
The River was put at a terrible disadvantage when ABC placed it in the 9PM Tuesday time slot, going up against longtime powerhouse NCIS: Los Angeles (CBS) and New Girl (FOX). It didn’t help that the episodes are layered with a formulaic soundtrack that makes the scares less scary. In other words: Why is there music in found footage? I think the show would have been taken more seriously had the producers been completely committed to the format. I remember ABC’s initial promo campaign being subpar in substance, though aggressive in visibility. I can’t quite pinpoint what the reason could be, but the show averaged just 5 million viewers.
Perhaps the reason for its lack of popularity is the very nature of the show: it is different. It’s not another reality singing competition or a Twilight ripoff or yet another crude comedy about people living together. It is none of those things and thus without a go-to audience. There have been rumors that a new studio may pick it up, and even Netflix has expressed interest, but that has since dissipated. Still, a “Save The River” Facebook page has garnered over 5,000 followers, keeping ardent fans updated on any news regarding the show.
If you’re interested, you can get The River on DVD for about $20. It’s not exactly a fun show, but it’s an exciting show. It’s a show that can open your mind and your heart. It’s a show that can make you wonder if there is indeed “magic out there,” and be horrified at the thought. The world might seem a bit bigger, somewhat stranger, and a heck of a lot scarier. Not many television shows can do that.