A good TV pilot tells you a complete story, and seduces you into wanting to see more. It provides a crash course in a TV show's world, and introduces a cast of characters. There's a lot of heavy lifting.
The pilot for Oren Peli's new show, The River, makes it all look easy. The director of Paranormal Activity has managed to compress a found-footage horror movie down to 45 minutes. Most of the major questions raised in the pilot are answered in the pilot, and this first outing, at least, feels like an addictive thrill ride. It's the best pilot we've watched in years.
Here's our early review — with no spoilers, beyond the synopsis the network has released officially.
First, a couple caveats: As usual, what we've seen are early not-for-air pilots that were released to press people. There's a strong chance that these pilots will change drastically before they ever air on television. And this is just our early gut reaction after watching the pilots — we'll be posting a proper review closer to the airdate, and of course we'll be recapping these shows.
Secondly, when we say "best pilot in years," though, that's not really saying much. Most TV pilots are absolutely horrible, even for shows that wind up being good eventually — for example, Fringe's pilot was kind of dull. We quite liked The Event's pilot last year, but it was already clear the show had potential flaws. But honestly, the last time I remember being on the edge of my seat watching a TV pilot was Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.
There are several shows debuting next season with pedigrees from Lost — various Lost writers and producers are creating shows, and some of the show's stars are also appearing in some new mystery-based projects. But The River, with no behind-the-scenes Lost connection, seems the most likely to become appointment television of the sort that Lost once was.
At one point, when we were watching the pilot for The River, we thought the episode must be almost done — and then we glanced at the time and realized we were just 15 minutes in. That's how many twists and cool set pieces this show manages to pack into its first episode. The whole thing is spooky, dark, weird and hypnotic. And like we said, The River doesn't seem like it's going to tease the audience with lots of questions — most of the show's biggest mysteries are answered within the first episode.
Despite the "found footage" concept, this pilot never feels like it cheats or resorts to excessive shaky-cam, and you won't get motion sickness watching it. The scares — and there are plenty of them — are good, honest moments of jump-out-of-your-seat terror, that the show totally earns.
Here's how ABC describes The River, which is a midseason replacement show:
"The River" follows the story of wildlife expert and TV personality Emmet Cole. Emmet set course around the world with his wife, Tess, and son, Lincoln, while filming what would become one of the most popular shows in television. After he goes missing deep in the Amazon, his family, friends and crew set out on a mysterious and deadly journey to find him.
Famed explorer Dr. Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood) went looking for magic deep in the uncharted Amazon and never returned. The shocking truth about his disappearance is out there, somewhere, just waiting to be discovered. To the millions of kids who grew up watching his nature show, Dr. Cole was a hero. To his own son, Lincoln (Joe Anderson), he was more of an enigma. Now, six months after he vanished, Lincoln is finally ready to bury the past when Dr. Cole's emergency beacon suddenly goes off. At the urging of his mother, Tess (Leslie Hope), Lincoln reluctantly joins her on a search for his father. To fund the rescue, they agree to let Dr. Cole's cagey ex-producer, Clark (Paul Blackthorne), film the mission documentary-style. The mixed crew of old friends and new acquaintances includes the sexy and resourceful Lena (Eloise Mumford), loyal mechanic Emilio (Daniel Zacapa) and lethal bodyguard Captain Kurt Brynildson (Thomas Kretschmann). "The River" stars Bruce Greenwood ("Star Trek") as Emmet Cole, Joe Anderson ("The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Parts 1 and 2") as Lincoln Cole, Paul Blackthorne ("Lipstick Jungle") as Clark, Paulina Gaitan as Jahel, Leslie Hope ("24") as Tess Cole, Eloise Mumford ("Lone Star") as Lena, Shaun Parkes ("The Mummy Returns") as Adjay, Thomas Kretschmann ("King Kong") as Captain Kurt Brynildson and Daniel Zacapa ("Resurrection Blvd.") as Emilio.
"The River," from Amblin's Steven Spielberg, Daryl Frank and Justin Falvey, showrunner/executive producer Michael Green ("Heroes," "Kings"), is also executive-produced by Oren Peli (creator of "Paranormal Activity"), Zack Estrin, Jason Blum and Steven Schneider. Teleplay by Michael R. Perry and Michael Green, story by Oren Peli & Michael R. Perry and Michael Green. The pilot is directed by Jaume Collet-Serra and produced by ABC Studios.
But the real reason we're so into this show is its strong cast of characters, who are established early on, with some nice economical storytelling, and gain more complexity as the hour goes on. By the end of the first episode, you have a pretty good handle on seven or eight key characters, and you've probably developed strong likes or dislikes for them. The dynamics of Dr. Emmett Cole's family feel like they could get just as complicated and messed up as the Bishop family, on Fringe.
The show's murky, dangerous setting is also a key character — but The River doesn't skimp on developing its human characters as well.
The River doesn't air until midseason, but we can already foresee people becoming completely batshit obsessed with its crew and their weird adventures, captured on camera for your vicarious entertainment. We were left really excited to see where this show goes next — as long as it can sustain its premise and its unique approach to filming over the course of dozens of episodes.
Bottom line: The River is much more exciting, immersive, and cinematic than you'd expect from a "found footage" style show. It has a mythology that feels like it could become something for your coworkers to obsess over around the watercooler, but the mysteries aren't of the "endless hand-waving" variety. The makers of the pilot paid attention to the fundamentals: character development and great storytelling, and it's paid off. Let's hope the rest of the show is this good.