The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Television Collision: The River Doesn’t Run Deep Enough

Written by: Phoebe Raven, CC2K Staff Writer

When the concept of ABC’s The River was first revealed… no one got excited, because we had all seen The Blair Witch Project a little over a decade ago and if we weren’t sick of found footage back then already, Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity brought back a variation of the same for contemporary audiences already.
But those are movies, you say. Found footage on TV, that’s something else. That could be good. Most critics, including myself, remained skeptical, and so did viewers: the double-sized premiere had lackluster ratings, which have since dropped dramatically. And rightly so.

The basic premise of The River is this: Dr. Emmet Cole used to have a successful nature and travel show, in which he and his family globetrotted and explained the world to the audience. But now Emmet Cole and his entire crew have disappeared somewhere in the Amazon. In a desperate attempt to refuse to accept his probable death, his wife and son assemble a team to go looking for Cole and his crew, and a camera crew is filming the entire rescue mission. Which, of course, goes horribly awry as soon as the cameras start rolling.

I expressed some initial thoughts about the early episodes of The River on Episode 75 of “The Idiot Box” podcast over at But let me reiterate why I believe The River simply messed up in its approach and now has to pay for it.
I believe if the show had truly stuck to the Blair Witch concept and exclusively used found footage (or the mimicry thereof), it could have been a much more intriguing show. Without all of its current explaining and exposition (mostly in the form of the Spanish-speaking girl conjuring up ghost stories for the camera), the show could have delved deep into mystery, while leaving viewers simultaneously puzzled and mortified.
The fact, however, that we are watching other people watch found footage takes a lot of the fear factor away, because we are always one degree removed.

This is the fundamentally wrong decision the makers of The River (Oren Peli, producer & writer of Paranormal Activity 1-4 and Michael R. Perry, TV veteran) made: either give us the found footage of Emmet Cole and his crew disappearing or give us the found footage of Cole’s wife and son and their crew disappearing. Either way provides terror, because the intro of the show pretty much makes clear that no one got out alive. Heck, you could have even started out Season 1 with footage of Emmet & Crew and then moved into footage of Wife & Son & Crew in subsequent seasons.

The constant interweaving of the “jungle magic” that happened to Emmet and the “jungle magic” that happens to his rescue team makes for a choppy TV show, mostly because the rescue team always looks to found footage from Emmet to find a solution for their magic troubles, which is a very heavy-handed storytelling device.
The problem is that even though the tapes provide the rescue team with leads as to where they can find Emmet, he basically has to become a character like the Mother on How I Met Your Mother: never to be found. Because where would The River go if they ever did find Emmet Cole? Would the next season be about the troubles to get back out of the Amazon? Who wants to see that? The basic tension would be resolved.

The show is only in Episode 6 and I am already getting tired of the near misses in finding Emmet Cole. The rescue team is so close so often and has already found two of Emmet Cole’s former crew members (I won’t say if they were dead or alive, maybe you haven’t seen it all yet), so how much longer can this trek really be drawn out?

And let’s address the “magic” that supposedly lives in the Amazon and terrorizes the rescue team (as it previously terrorized Emmet and his crew as well): the whole concept is offensive. The Amazon region is vast and mysterious, for sure. The rain forest is long not done revealing its secrets to us (unless we succeed in chopping it all down first), but that is no reason to place evil spirits there just because it’s a place mankind hasn’t “conquered” or “tamed” yet. Every time the Spanish-speaking exposition girl (her name is Jahel, btw) goes rambling on about another ghost, demon, spirit or ancient legend, the crew is inclined not to believe her (although recently some of them have come around). And yet the only problems they ever encounter are exactly those supernatural ones, even when parts of their ship break, they do so because something supernatural has taken a hold of the ship and won’t let it go.
In a region as wild as the Amazon, things like clean water, food, dangerous animals, poisonous plants and gushing rainfalls are far more pressing concerns, yet the show conveniently chooses to ignore those in favor of portraying the region as evil, haunted and “to be avoided”. Even the few tribesmen that are portrayed, enact macabre vengeance if you violate their rituals. Now that’s the kind of portrayal that doesn’t help indigenous people in their survival at all.

When we examine the horror elements of The River, some of them are successful (even in their offensive way of coming about). There’s nothing more unsettling than watching a silent, agile figure creep up on one of our characters on CCTV. And the one time the two realities of Emmet Cole’s crew and the rescue team actually connected in a recent episode, when they found Emmet’s main camera man, whose daughter is also on the rescue team, it made for the very first intense emotional moment of the entire show. Lena’s pain and horror at realizing that her father, now a ghost condemned to stay on another ship, has died a long time ago and all she can do is what his ghost burn, was a powerful moment and beautifully rounded out her character.

Round characters are something The River is missing anyway. We get clichéd details about the rescue crew that are supposed to tell us why they are willing to go on the mission at all, but really they all have remained fairly flat so far. This is especially harmful for the characters of Emmet Cole’s son and wife, since they should have the most reason to want to rescue him, yet their motives are vague at best and their behavior is erratic.
Emmet’s son Lincoln is on the path to becoming a doctor in Chicago, having spent his childhood on a boat with his mother and father, filming a TV show. He had accepted that his father was dead, until his beacon was picked up and his mom dragged him on the rescue mission. Lincoln wavers between believing Jahel’s ghost stories and dismissing them, making him an uneven character. But at least he got a haircut, that did wonders.

Emmet’s wife and Lincoln’s mother, Tess, is just a complete miscast for me, because she neither looks young enough in flashbacks to be Lincoln’s mother then, nor does she look old enough now to be Lincoln’s mother in the contemporary moment. Furthermore, she had had an affair with one of the camera men, and for a long time, it seems, and yet mysteriously now she is obsessed with finding Emmet, who basically dumped her to venture out into the Amazon again. Her motivations make no sense, especially when she – holding her son in her arms – yammers: “I just want to get my family back”. You have your son right there! Stop risking his life on a suicide mission through the haunted Amazon!

I don’t want to harp on here and pound the show into the ground. It is good for the occasional scare (if you haven’t seen too many horror movies, that is; otherwise you’ll see everything coming a mile away) and at least it is attempting to break the format of standard television in some regards, even if the found footage thing would have to be more extreme for the show to really make a statement.
The dialog is often trite and cliché, there is no real eye candy to look at to make up for it and the storyline will have to stall the reveal over and over and over in order to keep the show going.
But if you enjoyed Paranormal Activity (I personally fell asleep, I was not scared at all), you might want to give The River a try. Although, since I don’t believe it will be renewed, I think you should watch all the episodes of Oren Peli’s other unsuccessful mystery show – Persons Unknown – instead. That was a far more mind-bending concept and had eye candy to boot.