One of the most pleasant surprises of the recent television season has nothing do with Broadway (Smash), Ashley Judd (Missing) or Ashton Kutcher (Two and a Half Men). It can be found in the dark, dank, murky waters of The River, arguably the best new show since AMC’s The Killing.
Here’s the problem: Not enough people are watching the inaugural season of the found-footage thriller series, and it looks like it might be headed down the drain.
After watching the first few episodes, and following the crew on its journey to find the missing Dr. Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood), it’s somewhat perplexing how The River hasn’t become the new Lost. Granted, it’s nowhere near the excellence of the polar-bear-in-the-woods show, but it has great potential.
First off, the acting is believable, which is saying a lot. The entire premise of the show is that we’re watching documentary footage, so the acting needs to be real and trustworthy. If it felt like these actors were acting, much of the series would feel manufactured and hokey. It’s a credit to the cast that even in the most unbelievable of circumstances, they give the plot a sheen of reality. Joe Anderson is quite good as Emmet’s son, Lincoln, while Leslie Hope is probably the best on the series as Emmet’s wife, Tess. The supporting cast is equally impressive, with not a weak link among the bunch. Creators Michael R. Perry and Oren Peli have an able company of actors.
The story, which is fairly broad and still hasn’t been defined, is intriguing and original. The entire series is built around this journey to find Emmet. We live in the present with the documentary crew and his family members, and we’re given glimpses of archival tapes that show what might have happened to the TV host.
Critics of the first episode questioned whether the show had enough steam to build into a complete series. At the time, that was an astute assertion. The story line feels narrow and almost cinematic in nature, lasting an episode or two, but certainly not enough to sustain a primetime series. Luckily, The River has beaten back these doubts by keeping us engaged each and every week, and also slowing down the plot. Too often, dramatic shows speed through their overarching story lines with a multitude of characters, twists and turns. The River covers a lot, but it actually is quite slow in its delivery.
There are some red flags: Unlike Lost, The River needs to elevate beyond the action and thrills. The eeriness of this environment is inspired and lends itself to some fun sequences (how about that freaky doll tree?), but if the show simply surrounds what goes bump in the night, then what’s the point? Lost was about something much larger than surviving on the island, and that’s what The River needs to achieve. Whether the central plot turns out to be supernatural, religious or apocalyptic in nature (or a mixture of all three), the show needs to finish its first, and hopefully not last, season by giving us a glimpse of what it all means. Why is the search for Emmet meaningful?
Here’s hoping we get to answer that question before ABC pulls the plug. If you want the show to stick around, leave your thoughts in the comment field below.
By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com