On the Bubble: The River

Posted on March 28, 2012


When I was a kid, I got a kind of frisson from some horror movie advertising, but I never went to see one. Even when I was old enough to see R-rated movies on my own, horror films creeped me out. These days, I’m selective about what I see, and I usually watch at home rather than in a theater. TV has had some good horror of its own recently. From Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Supernatural to American Horror Story, television keeps trying to find a runaway hit in the horror genre.

So, when The River came along from producers Michael R. Perry and Oren Peli, we decided to give it a try.

We Watched It

Dr. Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood) is an explorer and TV personality whose catchphrase is, “There’s magic out there.” He decides to go on an expedition deep into the Amazon River basin, against the advice of his ex-producer, Clark (Paul Blackthorne), and that of his wife Tess (Leslie Hope). He leaves behind his usual mechanic and engineer, Emilio Valenzuela (Daniel Zacapa), because he believes it will be too dangerous for Emilio and his daughter Jahel (Paulina Gaitán).

Turns out Emmet was right, because he, his crew, and his ship, the Magus, disappear.

Emmet’s estranged son, Lincoln (Joe Anderson), a scientist in his own right, gets a call from his mom informing him of his father’s disappearance. She tells him that she’s financed a search-and-rescue mission by giving Clark permission to film the entire expedition. Clark has hired Emilio, who brings Jahel along, and Captain Kurt Brynildson (Thomas Kretschmann) for protection. Clark brings A.J. Poulain (Shaun Parkes), an English cameraman. Lena Landry (Eloise Mumford), daughter of Emmet’s lead cameraman, rounds out the group.

Together they head down the River, looking for answers.

On the Bubble

The fundamental problem with this show should be obvious to everyone who reads this blog, or my blog over at Forces of Geek: It’s the Gilligan’s Island Syndrome. If they ever find Emmet, the show is over, right?

Yeah, except that’s not true. This show keeps confounding my expectations in the best possible way. For example, the expedition finds the Magus in the first episode. Video footage found there, and phone calls made by Brynildson, mention “the Source.” Apparently, there is literally magic in the world, and it all comes from this Source. So right off, they resolve one puzzle but raise more questions.

I keep watching because I want to see how the writers are going to keep the plot alive.

Lots of shows try to merge long story arcs with episodic formats. Most feel like they spend every season treading water, and then race through important events in a few episodes toward the end. The River floundered a little bit, wandering into monster-of-the-week territory, but found its way and pushed forward.

I really wonder how they’ll wrap the season, because it’s likely to be the only one broadcast. Although it’s generally gotten good reviews and has a 64/100 rating at Metacritic, the ratings have been sub-par. In fact, it’s so “On the Bubble” at ABC that Netflix is already bargaining to pick it up.


I am not a huge fan of found footage projects. I’m sure some people think that The Blair Witch Project was the first, but the technique in horror films goes back at least to 1980. Oren Peli is most well known for the Paranormal Activity movies, so he has some experience in the area.

The River uses the technique pretty well, but you can spot moments when no hand-carried or stationary video camera could have captured the footage.

I find myself contrasting The River with American Horror Story. Both capitalize on fear of the unknown, but then they split apart. In The River, the cast realize very, very quickly what kind of story they’re in. Their “Ghost Ship Moment” comes in episode one. In American Horror Story, each of the three family members has that realization at a different time. It adds to the psychological tension for the audience, because every episode we wonder who is going to figure out what.

American Horror Story kept showing us the senseless pain that we inflict on those closest to us, how vulnerable we are when we open ourselves to relationships, and the ugliness that lurks behind beautiful facades and neatly trimmed lawns. Whereas in The River, all the tension comes from wondering what is going to jump out and scare us next (we know when, because the music warns us).


What appeals to you about the horror genre, or turns you off?

Oh, and to make up for those song lyrics in the excerpt…

Posted in: television