I'm so disappointed in this show. It has a great premise, some very cool actors, and a few characters I like a lot, but it doesn't know what to do with any of those things.
The premise is that a Steve Irwin-esque explorer/TV star named Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood) has gone missing after one, last mission up the Amazon River. Though his wife and son were always a part of his long-running show, this was a mission that – for mysterious reasons – he didn’t want them to go on. So now Tess (Leslie Hope) and Lincoln (Joe Anderson) are heading back into the jungle with what’s left of Cole’s old production crew to look for him and document the experience. Lincoln’s already written his dad off for dead and isn’t keen on dredging up old memories, but Tess has new evidence that Cole may be alive, and guilt-fueled reasons for needing to find him.
Bruce Greenwood (National Treasure: Book of Secrets, the Star Trek remake) is always a welcome actor and he’s especially charismatic as Cole (I’d totally watch a nature show starring Dr. Cole; no problem), but there are other familiar faces too. Leslie Hope is one from her time as Jack Bauer’s wife on 24, but her character is as abrasive in The River as Teri Bauer was, so that’s not exactly a selling point. It’s really cool though to see Paul Blackthorne from the sadly short-lived Dresden Files as TV producer Clark Quietly. Even though he’s introduced as a cliché Hollywood jerk, my fondness for Harry Dresden made me immediately sympathetic to him and that didn’t go unrewarded. Quietly turns out to be a deeper character than his stereotype implies.
There are other great characters on the show as well, even though I’m not familiar with the actors who play them. Shaun Parkes (he’s been in a couple of episodes of Doctor Who, but I didn’t remember him) is likable as AJ the cameraman. Like Blackthorne’s character, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that AJ’s more than just a pushy guy who’ll do anything to get a shot. For one thing, he won’t do anything. He’s generally brave and resourceful, but he has limits that quickly get tested in the jungle.
The rest of the crew isn’t as awesome. Thomas Kretschmann (King Kong, Wanted) plays a security expert named Kurt who’s in communication with someone outside the group and appears to have his own, deadly motives for wanting to find Cole. He’s so mysterious though that he’s all plot and no character. Four episodes in (if you count the two-hour premiere as the two episodes it was designed to be) and we know almost nothing about him other than that he may or may not be a threat to Cole when they find him.
Daniel Zacapa plays Emilio Valenzuela, the ship’s mechanic, who’s mostly there to fix things and be over-protective of his daughter, Jahel (Paulina Gaitan). Jahel is the most disappointing character because she starts off seeming so wise to the area’s dangers, but soon becomes annoying as the group’s Cassandra; relentlessly predicting their doom. If she had something else to do – or even just got to have fun every once in a while – her dire prophecies would be powerful. Unfortunately, she’s tiresome by the fourth episode. I suspect that given enough time, Jahel will be developed into a real character, but I’m not willing to wait that long. Especially with all the other problems this show has.
I’ve never really liked the found-footage style of storytelling anyway and The River is especially bad at it. That’s kind of surprising since it’s created by the guys behind the Paranormal Activity series, but there’s a blatant Blair Witch rip-off in the first episode and a couple of Paranormal Activity call-backs in the second. There are also a lot of instances of cameras being in places where they have no business being. Or turned on and filming footage when their operators have much more important things to worry about than keeping the camera rolling.
The hugest issue I have with the show though is the writing. The River’s week-to-week format has the team following the same formula every episode. They search for Cole, run into something dangerous (usually a ghost or spirit of some kind), then give up and escape back to the boat. There’s no continuity. What the team learns one episode has no bearing on what they do in the following episode. In the first one they find a huge cache of Cole’s tapes from before he went missing, so each week they pull one out and search it for clues. And they always give up before they even exhaust whatever clue they find.
The most frustrating example of the show’s miserable writing is in the first episode where they encounter the malevolent ghost of a member of the missing party. As they fight it, Tess screams at the ghost, trying to communicate with it and learn if Cole is dead or alive. As everyone chaotically battles the ghost, she yells at it to give her a sign: “one” for dead; “two” for alive. When the monster attacks her and leaves two scars on her abdomen, she takes it as her answer. That’s silly enough, but Tess is looking for hope, so she can be excused. The stupid part is that Lincoln – who up to this point has steadfastly proclaimed his belief that his dad is dead – accepts the “sign” too and completely changes his mind, even having to re-convince Tess during a moment of doubt.
It’s a pity, because I was totally up for a show about a group of cool, interesting people exploring uncharted areas of the Amazon. And I found a lot to like here; enough that I want to give it a chance and will miss some of these characters when I check out. I can get over the sloppy found-footage; the directors barely care about it enough to keep up the pretense, so why should I try to make myself believe it? With so many writing problems this early on though, I’m just not confident that I’ll be rewarded by sticking with it. Unlike the crew in The River, I’m giving up on Cole and finding something else to do instead.