There is entertaining television, crazy television, educational television, even intelligent television. Unfortunately, if there are cancellations, it seems like the intelligent shows get canceled. I have the unfortunate task of reviewing ABC’s The River; unfortunate, not because it is a bad show but because it was an intelligent show I liked, that has been canceled after one season. At least this thought-provoking, at times supernatural, horror series concludes the first season in a way that won’t have too many people too upset. There is another hope though for fans of the show; that the DVD itself will be successful enough that at least concepts of the series, whether by story, television, cable, or something else, could live on. While I don’t expect it, I can hope. Unfortunately, The River is a show that in my opinion was never given a chance. ABC should have tried different times, days, or something, even giving it another year, but as I have mentioned in the past, some of the networks don’t seem to care about the existence of loyal fans.
The River had an intriguing and interesting concept. Dr. Emmet Cole, (Bruce Greenwood) and his family take part in a television nature show called The Undiscovered Country. After the show has aired for some time, Dr. Cole decides to go deep into the Amazon to explore some supernatural rumors of the region. He leaves his son, Lincoln, (Joe Anderson) and wife Tess, (Leslie Hope.) He goes off with a film crew and ultimately disappears. Later on some discoveries are made and Tess gets her son Lincoln, along with some of the old film crew, to help track down and find Dr. Cole.
What transpires is a supernatural thriller that at times crosses boundaries for television in the way it is presented. This well told, acted, edited, and scripted story includes creators like Orin Peli, known for his movie Paranormal Activity, and a little known producer some folks have heard about named Steven Spielberg. Unfortunately, this eight episode, midseason replacement is never given a chance to develop an audience by ABC and as a result, after one shortened season, the series was canceled. That doesn’t prevent this DVD of the first season from being worth owning though; not only is it worth owning, it plays and presents itself better than the television version, as it ends up playing like a long, entertaining, intelligent supernatural movie.
As The River progresses we see the development of various characters including Dr. Cole, who is presented primarily in video segments the rescue crew discovers on his old research boat, The Magus. The ship sits like a ghost ship in the Amazon Basin and it is here the crew gets the ship up and running to search for Dr. Cole. It is here we see the family dynamics start to come into play. There is another dynamic presented as the characters develop trust in some relationships and concern in others. A part of the development schemes does not know the characters or how they are intertwined, if they are intertwined at all. The hand held camera work used in many of the sequences keeps the viewer involved in the story; we develop our opinions about the characters, which constantly change through all eight episodes.
If the series’ unique and intelligent character development is partly due to our continuing uncertainty and questions about the characters, this is especially true with the Cole family and other characters, such as Captain Kurt Brynildson, a bodyguard played very nicely by Thomas Kretschmann. While some may make comparisons to other hand held camera programs, this one is unique in the way it involves the viewer in the action and it is done in a way that is much easier to watch than previous efforts.
One of the things that makes The River so enticing is the suspense in the program. There is the suggestion that the supernatural is real, the question of what is good vs. what is evil, and in the process, the knowledge that terror often comes from things unseen. I especially liked the fact that much of the terror and emotion come from moments of silence as well as blurred images. One of the things the program does to help tease this concept out is to use video interviews to discover the inner feelings of the characters. In the understanding of those characters is the reality that as conditions and situations alter, so may the ways we think and react. It is in those challenges that we discovers our true selves. Just as the characters don’t fully understand who they are or why they are the way they are, we can see the mirroring of our own discovery. Our ability to see the horror of the characters on screen can help us come to the place of recognizing our own needs. It is often after the opening up, discovery, and acceptance of self that one can get to the place of helping others. We see that in The River. Just as the Bible states, it is only when we give up our life that we ultimately gain life; we see the gaining of life in The River. There is also the premise of sacrificing for others. It is in the sacrifice for another that one can often see the reality love.
One of the challenges of the series is the way it carries on the debate between faith and science. While Dr. Cole is a man on a search for truth, his rescue crew comes to the place where they recognize the reality of the spiritual by the awareness and recognition of the evil around them. It is through evil that they realize there is more to their existence than initially realized. There are times where they experiment with the evil around them to discover certain truths and those moments lead to bad things. There are consequences to pay for themselves and the innocents around them when they carry out their actions. In this search for love and understanding is another aspect which the viewer can relate to.
I liked The River, the way it is filmed and the way the viewer is brought into the action. There is an excellent story and the lack of imagery in many ways leads to the thrill and excitement we experience. I was not crazy about the special features and while they include two commentaries, there just isn’t that much offered other than the film makers having a good time while describing the scenes being played out, specifically in the pilot and closing episodes. While there is an open-ended ending, there is still an opportunity for resolution and viewers will be satisfied. I would have liked to have seen a second and full season and think it would have done well, but ABC disagrees. For those who like intelligent thrillers, laced with a touch of the supernatural but with screams that come from the imagination as opposed to onscreen antics, this could be for you. You certainly won’t have much to lose with the lower pricing on this eight episode series. Give it a shot— who knows, with great DVD sales and rentals, maybe the fans can be a part of bringing it back in some form or another.
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