One of reasons why it’s tricky to judge a series on a pilot is that you never know what the writers have up their sleeves. The River, a new drama/reality theme project begins with us knowing that revered nature TV show host Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood) is missing somewhere in the Amazon. His wife Tess (Leslie Hope) tells their son Lincoln (Joe Anderson, with hot coals in his mouth) that his beacon has given off a signal. The network that airs Emmet’s show wants to finance a trip to the region to rescue him but only if his family spearheads the effort.
With all this information and frequent ‘lost footage’ shots of Emmet as a guide, it seems the show is out to capture the many Lost viewers that aren’t already engrossed into a suitable substitute. Having Steven Spielberg credited as a co-producer helps to give it time to flourish too but already, four episodes in, we’re into a rather illogical stream of events…and we haven’t even located Emmet yet. If the two-hour premiere set a decent bar, then episode three (“Los Ciegos”) built up great momentum when the denizens started to appear along with a sudden blindness disease for all of the crew sake for the cameraman A.J. (Shaun Parkes). As convenient as that was, it is nothing compared to the absurdity of what occurs when he finds the plant that will cure the others. Worst yet, back at the boat, Clark (Paul Blackthorne) looks just about to be savaged only for the creatures (?!) to back off in a show of morality.
After the ridiculous conclusion of Los Ciegos the show seems fated to now unleash a spawn of predictable conclusions, none promising or at least worthy of our rapt attention. If we accept that the Amazon denizens are suddenly not trying to kill the crew---which they were most definitely trying to do—then we must assume that the crew will turn upon itself. Episode four (“A Better Man”) sets this up immediately with the question of captaincy of the ship, a stunning reversal from the pilot. In true pageant-meets-reality TV style, the camera follows each person around as they give their thoughts while they do mundane tasks like cooking or fishing. Is it the doting mom who leads even as she puffs up to recite that men do not like to follow women leaders? Is it the reluctant son, who sounds and looks disinterested? Is it the missing (and feared dead) father who casts a long shadow over the proceedings?
The weakness of the show is thus exposed: distrust and aimlessness in its own material as it goes along. The pilot (“Magus”) worked because the aim was defined clearly. We knew where Tess’ intentions lay and presumed everyone else did too. The writing of the show has sabotaged her character the most since then, taking a strong archetype and making her more “feminine” i.e. the target for all the testosterone on the ship. It is of course heading to an inevitable clash between mother and son, with everyone having to take a side, further dividing themselves. As The River was an eight episode mid-season replacement pick-up, one wonders if it’ll have time for all this inconsequential drama though. We’re not even acknowledging the extent of the attraction between Clark and Tess yet.
As “A Better Man” indicates, the writing is in a serious tailspin. The jabs of paranoia feel forced as do the moments of calm. We swerve from a picnic where, to unwind, the crew roasts some shark parts and has Lincoln play the banjo. Suddenly, Jahel (Paulina Gaitan) gasps—sure sign of trouble—and we focus on a cameraman being hung by a tree. If this jerky sequence was troubling enough then it gets worse if one thinks through logically. If the Magus has been slowly worming its way through the Amazon, how come no one saw him there before, especially as the camera is always on? Also, how can Lincoln diagnose so accurately by binoculars only yet not so much when a patient is right before him?
These are insights the writing should take into consideration if the show gets picked up for a second season (as unlikely as that now seems). As they take in this new member (Jonas) we deduce that he was being made to pay for some offence to the jungle and that unless he ‘repents’ then death awaits. As Tess makes her decision on his fate, both Jonas and the jungle decide too, each more ridiculous than the other.
Like The Walking Dead, the series has started to branch out into a grey area that I’m not sure the writers have total command of yet. Unlike that brilliant AMC show though, The River is still into its infancy…it is way too early for the natives to give up killing these intruders or, alas, to be providing fresh vegetables for them to eat and make merry amongst themselves. You know complacency has set in when the mom can give off a quote like, ‘locals don’t like being filmed…you know that’, deadpan. Doesn’t sound like a woman in any danger out there in the jungle to me…nor one frantically in search for her missing husband.