ABC's supernatural adventure drama The River started out with so much promise. The characters were compelling, the Amazon setting intriguing, and the reality TV crew vs. family secrets theme created instant conflict. And yet, after a bumpy 8-episode run, the show plunged from 8.35 million viewers for the pilot (a respectable debut) down to 4.09 for last night's season finale. What went wrong?
The River began with what might be one of my favorite pilots ever. When I first saw it, I was incredibly excited for what felt like a very grown-up supernatural drama about people with problems that went beyond monsters of the week. Scientist Emmet Cole, whose reality TV series about taking his family on wildlife adventures, has disappeared — and after months, he's been declared dead. His wife Tess is going crazy trying to find him, and when Emmet's emergency beacon goes off she jumps at the chance to track it down. Reality TV producer Clark, who has been having an affair with Tess, says he'll fund a rescue trip if she'll agree to let him film everything. To get the network's cash, she has to convince Emmet's estranged son Lincoln to come along too. Making everything freakier is their discovery of a series of videos Emmet made of himself participating in what look like very real magic rituals in the Amazonian forest, lighting fires with his hands and summoning sprits.
Also, the show was created by Oren Peli, who wrote and directed Paranormal Activity. The guy knows how to scare the CRAP out of us.
Like I said, it was a very cool setup. But the follow through was a huge disappointment, despite the fact that the show often had moments of sheer brilliance, scary tension, and serious, eye-widening intrigue. Here are a few possible reasons it failed to hook a big audience and break out.
What does every successful horror TV series have that The River didn't? Characters who are adorable and good at quippery. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Supernatural, X-Files, and even True Blood feature casts of characters that spawn giant internet fan communities for a reason. They are ridiculously, even unbelievably, likeable. Plus, they are funny. All these shows have a lot of scares and tension, but they also have comic relief and funny patter to offset the grimness. Even the characters you hate, like Sookie, are people you LOVE to hate.
In The River, we can sympathize with our characters' feelings, but we are also never allowed to forget how dirty and compromised everybody's motivations are. Emmet has created a lovable TV persona that is ripped away in the very first episode. The Emmet we know is crazy, broken, and a shitty father who neglected his only son. His wife Tess is half-crazy, trying to resurrect the glory days of their family TV series; Lincoln is understandably angry at his father, but he's so pissed off most of the time that it's hard for us to enjoy being around him. Lena, Jahel, and her father are being used by everybody. And Kurt is a cypher.
Meanwhile, Clark is a venal TV producer who eventually shows his human side when we realize that he still loves Tess, which was actually a great move — finally, we had a character we could like, who also had funny lines. But it was too little too late. Plus, who wants the one relatable character to be the guy in the corner with the camera? He's a good Xander but we also need some main characters we can adore too.
The other problem was our characters' development — or lack thereof. Most of them gradually calcified into stereotypes. We started with a pretty meaty batch of characters — Jahel could see ghosts but was a great engineer; Lena was a hacker with daddy issues; Lincoln a lab scientist in the shadow of his adventurer father; Tess is torn up by her weird marriage. I could go on. As the show went on, however, only two characters became more interesting: Kurt and Clark. They actually developed as people and we learned new things about them that explained their roles on the boat.
Everybody else froze into stereotypes. Lena the awesome hacker turns out to work at The Gap and have a crush on Lincoln. Tess is a cheater. Emmet goes from being a potentially evil magus to a neglectful father. Jahel becomes a Magical Latina. When Clark's cameraman AJ came out (randomly) as gay in the finale last night, he says he says his homosexuality was irrelevant in the jungle since it wasn't like he could "go clubbing" there. Because that's what gay people do. Go clubbing. Just like Latina girls are in touch with spirits, and women, no matter how scientifically talented, work in clothing stores.
The Reality TV Crutch
Though Clark's team started out as a nice foil for the Cole family, the reality TV trope went from source of good narrative conflict to complete crutch. Case in point was the episode when everybody on the Magus basically spent the ENTIRE hour watching footage they'd discovered from Emmet in the jungle. We see Emmet nearly die, and then get rescued by the "angel" tribe. As I noted when I recapped that episode, there is basically no way in hell that most of that footage could exist.
I'm not saying the show had to be completely realistic 100% of the time — after all, its characters are battling the god of demons. The answer was to integrate this backstory stuff on Emmet in a better way. There is no excuse for an entire episode where most of the characters spend the whole time gaping at a monitor.
Brilliance Amid the Clichés
And yet despite all these problems, this show had a ton of great moments. I loved the mystery of the Amazon's magic. I loved how characters routinely died and got resurrected. This was balls-out magic, which is refreshing. There were definitely surprises I didn't expect, like the eco nerds being zombies and Emmet being kept alive inside that freaky pod-thing. Most importantly, mysteries got solved. It was fucking brilliant to have the characters discover Emmet in the second-to-last episode so that question was answered. Yes, there are plenty of questions remaining. But this was a show that gave us payoffs, both in terms of scares and in terms of the plot.
Still, The River could have used a little bit more of Fringe's "weird science" and a little less cheesy magical stuff — after all, most of the characters are scientists of some kind, while the only magic expert is Jahel (and, we find out in the 11th hour last night, Kurt).
This possession scene from last night's finale is a perfect example of the cheeseball clichés we got in this show. After Jonas randomly tries to shoot Emmet (why? we never know), he hits Lincoln and kills him. Jahel channels the spirit of the river, Boiuna, to resurrect Lincoln — but then the Boiuna snuggles up inside Lincoln too. Why does the Boiuna's possession look EXACTLY like every other possession we've seen in the tons of movies about exorcisms released in the last year. There are the throaty voice insults, the body contortions, the "you suck" accusations, etc. Shouldn't this cool new spirit have its own way of possessing a person? And shouldn't it have something to say other than "you don't really know your son" and "you took my secrets"?
But then just when I'm doing the old face stabbery and grunting about clichés, this happens. In the final scene of the episode, we discover that the river is actually CHANGING ITS SHAPE to prevent the Magus from leaving the Boiuna's stretch of Amazon. Creepy, beautiful, and a great way to open up our next arc. Which — there probably won't be one.
Verdict: Given a few more episodes, The River might have really gotten good
I think this was a case of not giving this series enough episodes and enough support to really break out. Yes it had problems, but they were solvable. We had a great new premise with Emmet back and the river changing shape, the mystery of "the source" to mull over, and characters who could become more likable now that Captain Emmet is back at the helm. Having him back would also mean we could do away with the reality TV crutch episodes.
All in all, I think this is a flawed but pretty cool show whose main problem was getting shot down before its time.