Produced by Steven Spielberg, and created by Paranormal Activity writer/director Oren Peli, new TV series The River boasts some pretty great credentials out of the gate. But can one-hit-wonder Peli, whose movie we loved, really handle a weekly horror series? We've seen the two-hour premiere of the show, which airs tonight, and we've got a spoiler-free assessment for you right here.
The Setup: Excellent
The strongest part of The River so far is its premise. Emmett Cole is a scientist/explorer who is the star of a long-running reality TV show about exploring in the remotest parts of the planet with his loving wife, Tess, and their adorable son Lincoln. Except as The River begins, the family has fallen apart. Tess and Emmett are estranged, the grown-up Lincoln is in med school and wants nothing to do with his dad, and Emmett himself has been missing on the Amazon for 6 months.
When Tess discovers that Emmett has set off his emergency beacon, she has to find out more - but the only way she can get the money to raise a search party is to let the TV studio film the whole thing, with the reluctant Lincoln along for the ride. I love the way this situation comes ready-made with interesting character tensions. Already conflicts are mounting between the characters, enhanced by the presence of snarky Brit TV producer Clark (and his ubiquitous cameras). They set out on the Amazon, with only some engineers and a bodyguard to help them. What they quickly discover is that Emmet has been messing with magic, and it's not the Harry Potter kind.
Everything in the show was shot with the kinds of cameras that producers would actually use in a reality TV show — a combination of stationary cameras throughout the protagonists' boats, one hovercam, and handhelds. Because Clark the producer is a major character, the show is as much about the tension between media exposure and family secrets as it is between science and magic. It's a smart, sophisticated premise.
The Acting: Very Good
A lot of the acting in the show is improvised, and luckily we've got a great group of actors who know their stuff. Standouts are Leslie Hope as Tess and Joe Anderson as Lincoln. Emmet doesn't appear much in the first two episodes, except in flashbacks and old tapes, but Bruce Greenwood does a terrific job showing us the happier past of Emmet contrasted with the Emmet of today — hollow-eyed and desperate. I'm looking forward to seeing more of Eloise Mumford as Lena, a computer expert and the daughter of Emmet's longtime cameraman, who has also gone missing. She has a special bond with Lincoln, whom she grew up with on the boat, and at the end of episode 2, we learn something extremely intriguing about why she and Emmet have remained close over the years.
The Plotting: Good
So far, the plotting has been pretty tight and very exciting. A lot has happened, and we've gotten to know our characters without any annoying infodumps. We've also learned about the show's mythology, which is drawn from Amazonian lore. Most important: Mysteries get solved. There is the still-open question of where the hell Emmet has gone, but we see our characters unlocking plenty of other missions along the way - and that's crucial. There is no JJ Abrams-style plot dangle here. That said, the second hour definitely suffered from some lag and horror padding where characters muck about for no reason and scenes go on for too long in an effort to build tension.
The Monsters: Meh
To be fair, this is not really a show about monsters per se. It's about how our characters deal with discovering magical aspects of the Amazon. However, we had two monsters in this pilot — one per hour — which suggests that this show will go into monster of the week territory sometimes. I am not averse to this as a show structure at all. But I'm not going to lie to you. The first monster was OK, and was deeply scary in context; but the second monster was just meh.
Bottom Line: Is It Scary?
The jury is still out on this one. During the first hour, there were some truly scary scenes that worked nicely with the reality-style camera work. But there were some draggy bits in the second hour. Overall, there were still enough shiver-inducing moments and bizarre reveals to make me eager to see the next episode. I am tremendously impressed at the way this show builds its characters in believable ways, even while dunking our heads into some pretty way-out magical craziness. You may not be terrified while you watch, but you'll definitely be intrigued.