Over the past couple of years, sci-fi, fantasy, and the supernatural have been more popular on network TV than they have been in a very long time. Much of this popularity is attributable to LOST’s mainstream success with a complex narrative structure and a plot steeped deeply in science fiction. The networks have tried to make lightning strike twice with shows like The Event and FlashForward, and they have met with varying degrees of success. Fantasy fairy tale drama Once Upon a Time is a bona fide ratings hit, while series like Awake just couldn’t grab the numbers they needed. Viewership frequently does not correlate to quality, causing many worthwhile shows to miss a second season pickup. That’s what happened with The River, ABC’s faux-documentary horror series that debuted in February 2012 but ended after just eight episodes. The full first season of The River now has arrived on DVD and delivers the full story in one package, alongside an assortment of bonus features.
Oren Peli, best known as the creator of the Paranormal Activity horror film series, wanted to produce a movie about a well known TV adventurer who becomes lost in the jungle. The character concept immediately brings The Crocodile Hunter’s late Steve Irwin to mind, likely an intentional reference point for the story. After meeting with Steven Spielberg, Peli and co-creator Michael R. Perry shifted the concept to a TV series, and The River eventually landed at ABC. The concept of a TV host being lost in the jungle remained, and the cast expanded to include a rescue team consisting of his family and friends.
Bruce Greenwood plays Dr. Emmet Cole, the ill fated explorer who goes missing in the Amazon prior to the first episode. After the world has all but given up on Cole, his emergency beacon activates, signaling that he might still be alive. Clark Quietly (The Desden Files’s Paul Blackthorne), Cole’s producer, convinces the explorer’s wife Tess (24’s Leslie Hope) to go into the jungle with a camera crew on an expedition to find and recover her lost husband. The crew’s contract stipulates that Cole’s son Lincoln (Twilight’s Joe Anderson) must be part of the expedition in order for the journey to get its funding. Lincoln’s relationship with his father was strained at best, but he agrees to go along for his mother’s sake. Also on board the rescue vessel are Lena (Eloise Mumford), the daughter of Cole’s missing cameraman, as well as the ship’s mechanic Emilio (Daniel Zacapa) and his daughter Jahel (Paulina Gaitan).
The rescue team equips their boat with an astounding number of cameras, in the hopes of recording the entire adventure for later compilation into a documentary. It is through that story conceit that The River is able to tap into Oren Peli’s penchant for the found footage genre. From quiet discussions in the cabins to encounters on the deck to even off-boat activities captured via handicam, everything that happens on the recovery mission will be captured on video. Using security cameras and shaky handheld cameras lends a voyeuristic quality to The River that is common to most found footage horror films. The camera setups and angles make the events seem more immediate and occasionally more intense, a stylistic choice that frequently pays off well when the show’s weirdness unleashes. With The River being an ongoing TV series, capturing everything through these random and convenient camera shots does eventually feel a bit unlikely, but that’s just another suspension of disbelief you’ll need to accept for any running show in this genre.
Of course, there’s much more to Cole’s disappearance than just an ordinary case of getting lost in the jungle. Before the end of the first couple of hours, the rescuers have found Cole’s boat abandoned and faced some severely creepy and dangerous forces. The remainder of the episodes investigate what really happened to Cole, as well as the nature of the section of the Amazon in which he and now his family became stranded. The horror balances well between outright scares and looming creepy dread, a tone established in Peli’s Paranormal Activity. In fact, the thematic and tonal connections between The River and the movie series are so evident that Katie Featherstone (Katie from the Paranormal Activity movies) even makes a three-episode appearance as Rosetta “Rabbit” Fischer, one of Cole’s missing party members.
In addition to the eight televised episodes, The River’s DVD release also packs in some new bonus features:
- Magic Out There – A behind the scenes featurette about the origins of the series, the shooting locations, and the show’s visual effects
- Deleted Scenes – A collection of 13 unaired scenes
- Audio Commentary – Michael Green and Zack Estrin (producers) join Jaume Collet-Serra (director) for commentary on the pilot episode, “Magus.” Bruce Greenwood joins Green and Estrin for the commentary on the final episode, “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”
Although The River met with cancelation after only eight episodes, it’s still an intriguing and sometimes exceptionally freaky horror outing. There have been rumors that Netflix was interested in picking up the show to produce additional series, much like they’re doing with Arrested Development. Even if that doesn’t come to fruition, the single season of The River that does exist is good stuff. There is some closure by the end of this batch of episodes, and the season’s mild cliffhanger makes for a very unsettling series closer for fans of the show. The River: The Complete First Season released on DVD on May 22, 2012, and is in stores now.