Hopefully, the found footage gimmick will give way after the first episode, since it would be a shame to shoot all of the Amazon from one camera on some guy’s shoulder.
Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood) is the beloved host of the popular nature TV show, The Undiscovered Country. For 22 years, he's been bringing the world to people’s living rooms, telling his rapt audience that “there’s magic out there.”
As The River opens, Emmet Cole is missing. He disappeared six months earlier on his latest expedition to the Amazon, which he took without his family or his usual crew. When Emmet is presumed dead, his son, Lincoln (Joe Anderson), speaks at a memorial service, choking out just enough kind words not to sound petty. For years he was known as the reluctant blond kid on his dad’s show; now, he's a sallow and surly adult, and a scientist in his own right.
After the service, Tess (Leslie Hope) catches up with her son with an urgent message: Emmet’s beacon is sending a signal. He could be alive and she wants Lincoln to help her find him. Lincoln says no, glowering at the cameras capturing his mother’s every move. His dad's network is filming a new show about the search for Emmet, but it will only finance the rescue mission if both Tess and Lincoln participate.
This set-up seems like the beginning of a deeply troubling satire of our reality show culture. Instead, it explains why The River's pilot episode, airing 7 February, is shot in a “found footage” style. It's a style premised on keeping the monster off screen, and well known to co-creator Oren Peli and co-producer Steven Spielberg, but its limits are on display here. Hopefully, the gimmick will give way after the first episode, since it would be a shame to shoot all of the Amazon from one camera on some guy’s shoulder.
Apart from this trick, The River plainly evokes Lost. Each of the many mission members seems to know more than he or she will say, even if they're introduced as types we've seen before. Kurt (Thomas Kretschmann), a bodyguard with a European accent, travels with an arsenal of guns. Lena (Eloise Mumford) is the daughter of Emmet’s cameraman -- also missing -- and may know why they were in the Amazon. The ship's mechanic, Emilio (Daniel Zacapa), brings along his daughter, Jahel (Paulina Gaitán): early on, we learn she has “ghost friends.” The group appears calculated to provide the varied background stories and agendas to sustain a slowly unfolding serialized show.
Except that the producers of The River say they are not making a show like Lost, but rather, a procedural, à la The X-Files. The searchers here aren't (yet) so odd as Mulder, and their quest for Emmet lacks the abject eeriness of his search for Samantha. But they do use the word “magic” dozens of times in the first episode, which may or may not be a sign of The River's direction.
It's understandable that its producers resist the "serialized" label. Since Lost debuted, there have been countless efforts to recapture its unusual blend of complex relationships and supernatural obfuscations. All have failed, with only Heroes lasting more than a couple of seasons before spectacularly imploding. So, even as Once Upon a Time looks like it might have a shot at longer life, the similarly themed Grimm, explicitly drapes itself in procedural clothing.
We all know that The River can't be sustained as a monster-of-the-week operation. The novelty of that played out halfway through the pilot. And so we hope that it embraces its inner Lost and heads right on in to the heart of darkness.