The River recap – 1×01/02: “Magus”/”Marbeley”

Courtesy of ABC

The River, another highly-anticipated new series, premiered last night. The show is the product of co-creator Oren Peli, who gave us the Paranormal Activity franchise, and has the intriguing premise of finding a missing person in the depths of the Amazon jungle. The show is chalked full of interesting characters and creepy imagery, but was it able to satisfy the seemingly unreasonable expectations I have for new shows this season?

Find out after the jump.

After some serious disappointment from Alcatraz and Smash, I didn’t want to have any expectations going into the two-hour premiere of The River, lest I be let down yet again. The show is far from perfect, but I will say this – I’m intrigued to keep watching and see how things pan out. I simply can’t predict what’s going to happen and that’s a definite rarity from the dramatic offerings of late.

The River follows a team of people looking for missing television host, Dr. Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood). Cole’s hosted a kind of Animal Planet/Crocodile Hunter-esque nature show entitled “The Undiscovered Country” for over two decades. After an expedition in the Amazon, Emmet mysteriously disappears, and, after six months, the search for him and his missing crew is called off. The River begins with a new crew of people continuing the search. The team includes his wife, Tess (Leslie Hope), his son, Lincoln (Joe Anderson), the daughter of one of the missing cameramen, Lena (Eloise Mumford), and some various television crew members. Tess desperately wants to find her husband, but the expedition will only be funded if she (and her son) agrees to participate in a reality-TV / documentary type show filming the progress of the search.

Courtesy of ABC

For this recap, I’m primarily going to focus on the formal qualities of the show, rather than what happens in the plot, because, quite frankly, I find the formal stuff way more interesting. Framing the search through the lens of “found footage” (ala The Blair Witch Project) is the most intriguing aspect of The River. We’re told right at the beginning that everything we’re going to see in the series is the footage filmed from the beginning of the search to, arguably, the end of it. With this framework, we’re privy to a very inventive use of multiple camera angles and varying kinds of footage, which helps keep things interesting. During the more suspenseful scenes, we get our fair share of shaky handheld camera views, static, low-res surveillance footage (Peli’s signature) and night vision perspectives. Sometimes it’s a bit unrealistic to think that we would get as much action in every shot as is shown, but I was willing to let this go most of the time (most…not all).

The story (based on these two episodes) isn’t particularly engaging or original. It runs the risk of getting tired if it’s only seen as a ghost story stretched out over an entire (eight episode) season rather than contained in a 90 minute film. But the attention paid to how this story is presented to us is what will keep it fresh.

I especially appreciated the more cinematic qualities. For example, we’re explicitly shown that there are indeed two cameramen following everyone around, which explains how we can see the two-shot editing, say, in a conversation. This is an aspect that is very quickly ignored in other “documentary-style” shows (Modern Family, I’m looking at you). I know it may seem silly, but when things like this are overlooked, it’s very easy for me to “come out” of the world of the show and be disengaged. The River pays attention to these small details, which contributes to its overall polish and for me, makes it all the more entertaining.

Also, the documentary style allows the show to go to places that it wouldn’t normally be allowed to go on network television. This means the more gruesome scenes can be alluded to rather than shown outright without seeming like the show went over budget  (consider, for example, when we witness our first killing). This also means we get a very clever use of subtitles early on in the first episode and characters can openly swear like they do in “real life” (They’re just bleeped out and mouth pixelated in post-production). These details exhibit that there’s some pride behind the work, there was thought behind these creative decisions– and the audience (read: me) really appreciates the extra effort.

Courtesy of ABC

So, the big question: is The River scary? As someone who absolutely abhors horror films, I would have to say no, or else I would have turned it off immediately. But that’s not the say that the creep factor wasn’t there in spades. I look more to the second part of the two-hour premiere to demonstrate this: the group stumbles on a shrine of discarded dolls hanging in a huge tree in the middle of the jungle. That’s right: dolls. HUNDREDS of them. As if they weren’t scary enough on their own, we get ones that are dirty, missing limbs and have their faces peeling off. That’s friggin’ creepy. Add in shots of these inanimate dolls inexplicable moving their heads and blinking their eyes and you’ve got hour two of The River’s premiere.

The episode’s director, Jaume Serra, takes full advantage of this environment, intercutting quick flashes of a ghost’s angry face in the midst of our group screaming as they run aimlessly in the dark. Blink and you’d miss it, but boy, is it every unsettling if you do see it (as in when you’re pauses your PVR and staring at it).  No, The River won’t necessarily give you those infamous jumpy scares, but the freak factor is definitely prevalent.

There are still some lingering questions I have about the series. Namely, I don’t know how long this whole “Search for Emmet Cole” can go on for without getting really frustrating and tired. I also don’t know how long the “scary”, documentary style can last either. Can this be sustained for a full season? I can’t say for sure, but based on these two first hours, I found the series entertaining and enjoyable enough to keep watching.

Some other observations:

  • A big flaw in BOTH of these first two episodes is how accepting everyone is of the supernatural elements. In hour one, Tess acknowledges she knows who the spirit that is taunting (and killing) the group is. She screams to it “Your name is Cam Travers! Tell me if Emmet is alive!” Umm hello? Why doesn’t anyone call her on how she knows this? This revelation is pretty much dropped after the scene ends. And that’s not all – in hour two, Tess is kidnapped for probably a good hour by another evil spirit. She reappears and yet NO ONE is asking her where the EFF she has been. They were just happy to have her back. Yes, I know, she could have blacked out or whatever, but it’s certainly something I would interrogate her about, the next day at least.
  • The lead cameraman A.J (Shaun Parkes) is quickly becoming my favorite character. He tells it like it is, has a touch of arrogance, but largely is responsible for the comic relief.
  • There’s some real solid acting amongst the principle cast, which is surprising with one this size. Based on these first two hours, there isn’t a dud in the bunch.
  • The shrieking ghost of the first hour kinda reminded me of the smoke monster from Lost. There – I said it: The River reminds me a bit of Lost (we were all thinking it…)

So what did you think viewers? How did The River score on your mid-season report card? Were you intrigued? Did you find the formal qualities enhanced or detracted from the main narrative? Let us know in the comments section!

About tvangie

Angie is a TV addict currently pursuing a PhD in media studies. A freelance researcher and writer on the side – she really misses talking about her favourite shows because none of her friends watch them. Help her out.

8 thoughts on “The River recap – 1×01/02: “Magus”/”Marbeley”

  1. In Episode 1, when Kurt threw a man into the river, he said: “Where we’re headed, there may be
    20 people in the world that can say I’ve seen worse and not be lying to get laid”. I don’t understand what he meant. Could you explain that for me?

    • Hi Fedric, I think the comment means that they’re going somewhere really dangerous/unpleasant that only a few people can say they’ve actually experienced worse, without lying. The tail end of the comment is a bit cheeky – suggesting that people lie all the time about “seeing worse” in order to “get laid”. Hope that helps clear it up – thanks for reading!

      • Thanks for your help. I’m also a TV addicted but English isn’t my native language so I have some difficulties in understanding the conversation. I hope to receive your help in the future.

  2. Hi all,
    Could you explain for me what Emmet means when he said this (in the tape):
    “We’re so close to the source. And we have to keep going.
    We have to. And the further we go off the Boiuna. The more physics breaks down.
    Reality gets so much… Bigger.”

    Thank in advance.

    • Hmm, this one is a bit tough. I think “the source” is probably referring to some sort of mystical power – that is at its most concentrated somewhere in the depths of the Amazon just past Boiuna river. (perhaps Boiuna is so ominous because we get the residual effects of “the source”; i.e. all the evil spirits and weird telepathic bugs) As you get closer to it – the supernatural/things that science has yet to explain (like perhaps when Emmet was holding live fire in his hands or something to that effect) become more and more potent. As he says, “physics break down” – what we know to be true doesn’t hold up when speaking about “the source”. It’s likely he’s heard stories from the natives, seen some evidence and wants to get to the source for himself. This is a pretty common trope we see throughout literature and art – man’s unending quest for ultimate power, where measured reason no longer applies – just the desire to be god. I think ultimately Emmet’s hubris was his downfall – he’s likely found this “source” and is trapped – having all that power just ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see! Here’s hoping it’s doesn’t turn out to be something lame like aliens.

  3. Pingback: The Secret Circle recap – 1×14: ‘Valentine’ « Bitch Stole My Remote

  4. I agree! (With what? Pretty much everything you said.) I definitely liked some of the smaller details, like having all the cameras set up on the boat, and the swearing – just added an authentic feel to it. I did struggle with everyone’s quick acceptance of the supernatural; I’m pretty sure it took people on Lost a little bit longer to deal with it all. I find myself slipping out of my suspended-belief mode when too many things go by without much ado. I do like this show though – already looking forward to the next episode, and where the little show-ending reveals in Alcatraz make me go “meh,” the sign (birthmark?) on Lena’s neck at the end of episode 2 got me pretty excited.

    On a sidenote, I can’t help but see a bit of The Life Aquatic in The River; wonderous creatures like giant blue dragonflies, a boat with various rooms and compartments that people call home, a trip being lead by an explorer…it’s just not as lighthearted (i.e., the dragonfly is also a spirit that crawls in your mouth and inhabits you and the explorer is telling you – via Jahel – to turn around).

    • Ah! interesting observation about The Life Aquatic; agreed – it’s not “as light” but a good comparison. Funny how all the bad stuff happens at night eh? But I suppose it’s a good thing – gives the show levels and makes the suspense more intriguing. Let’s hope the series keeps it up!