Tuned In: 'The River' has a lot going on under surface
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ABC's "The River" turns out to be a more interesting show than its pilot suggests. That's not to say the premiere, airing tonight at 9 on WTAE, is disappointing -- it's a scary enough introduction -- but future episodes expand the show's universe, better develop the characters and reveal that while the show is called "The River," not every story has to take place on a boat.
Executive produced by Oren Peli, who directed the 2007 horror-thriller movie "Paranormal Activity," "The River" uses the same herky-jerky filming style as a documentary crew follows the search for famed TV explorer Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood).
Emmet hosted a TV show called "The Undiscovered Country," which debuted in 1988 and aired Saturday nights for 22 years. He's essentially a fictional version of Steve "The Crocodile Hunter" Irwin, traveling the globe with a camera crew and his family in tow. That includes wife Tess (Leslie Hope, "24") and son Lincoln (Joe Anderson, "Across the Universe"), who becomes discouraged by the family business and pursues a career as a doctor instead.
But then Emmet went on an expedition up the Amazon River without his family or his usual producer, Clark Quietly (Paul Blackthorne, "The Dresden Files") and disappeared. Clark gets commissioned by a television network to film the search for Emmet, which Tess embarks on and gets a reluctant Lincoln to join, too.
The expedition takes them into "the Boiuna," an uncharted region of the Amazon that allows the show's writers to more easily make up paranormal stories. In the premiere, the team finds Emmet's boat, the Magus, and inadvertently unleashes a black swarm spirit that appears to be played by the Smoke Monster from "Lost."
The premiere episode also introduces additional characters, including private security guard Kurt Brynildson (Thomas Kretschmann) and Lena Landry (Eloise Mumford, "Lone Star"), whose cameraman father went missing with Emmet.
It's a spooky enough hour of television, but next week's episode is creepier still as the explorers traipse under a jungle canopy of dead-eyed dolls hanging from trees; it's reminiscent of an art installation project on a hillside of the Carnegie Mellon University campus prior to construction of the Gates Center of Computer Science in 2008.
ABC made the first five episodes of "The River" available for review and seeing more than just the pilot gives a better sense of what the show will be on a weekly basis. It also offers a chance to see how producers rethink things: In the pilot, the ship engineer's daughter, Jahel (Paulina Gaitan), speaks Spanish and her father, Emilio (Daniel Zacapa), translates for Lincoln. Several episodes into the series, Lincoln tells Jahel he speaks Spanish. Why'd he wait so long?
Producers may also be regretting the show's title. While "The River" pilot was shot in Puerto Rico, the series is filming in Hawaii, where there are few navigable rivers, forcing producers to fake a river on ocean inlets. Subsequent episodes take place on land as often as they do on water.
Future plots feature a bout of blindness, the discovery of a missing person, an addition to the crew and more unsteady camera work.
The show's writers would be wise to pay as much attention to creating realistic and non-cliche characters and relationships as they do the show's scares. Because they don't, "The River" lacks the sophistication of "Lost" but its formula is more flexible than recent Fox addition "Alcatraz."
First Published February 7, 2012 12:00 am