Episode Title: "Magus"
Story by: Oren Peli & Michael R. Perry
Teleplay by: Michael Green and Michael R. Perry
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Episode Title: "Marbeley"
Writers: Michael Green & Zack Estrin
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
TV explorer Dr. Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood) disappeared in the Amazon forest and seemingly perished. Six months later, Cole's estranged wife, Tess (Leslie Hope) and his grown son, Lincoln (Joe Anderson) led an expedition to find him. "The River" is comprised entirely of "found footage" from the second expedition intercut with clips from Cole's TV series, "The Undiscovered Country" and other related videos.
On camera, Tess asks Lincoln to accompany her on a quest to find his father (and her husband), Dr. Emmet Cole. Reluctantly, Lincoln agrees as Cole's ex-producer, Clark Quietly (Paul Blackthorne) bankrolls the trip in return for full access for his cameramen, A.J. Poulain (Shaun Parkes) and Sammy Kirsch (Jeff Galfer) . Also on board are Cole's former engineer, Emilio Valenzuela (Daniel Zacapa), Emilo's daughter, Jahel (Paulina Gaitan) and a fearsome bodyguard by the name of Captain Kurt Brynildson (Thomas Kretschmann).
After three days on the Amazon, the ship finds Cole's transponder in a protective underwater cage with no sign of Cole or his ship, The Magus. Lincoln suggests that this means that his father is dead, but Tess insists that they continue. The next day, their ship stops to take on supplies when a helicopter sets down with Lena Landry (Eloise Mumford), the daughter of Cole's cameraman, Russ Landry, who is presumed missing alongside his employer. Lena rips into Lincoln for not telling her about their expedition and she forces herself on the crew by saying that she knows where to find the Magus.
The next day, the crew takes two rafts up the river, where they discover the Magus washed up on the side and seemingly devoid of life. They soon discover that the panic room has been sealed from the outside. But when they hear banging from within, they theorize that Cole and Russ are trapped inside. So, they open the door and discover an odd creature that attacks Lena at high speeds and then escapes into the jungle. While treating Lena's injury, Lincoln learns that she had been in contact with his father prior to his disappearance.
After Lena is seen behaving suspiciously, the crew discovers that the rafts have been disabled and the sounds of the creature surround them. With no other recourse, the crew makes the Magus sea worthy again. But in a second attack by the creature, Sammy is killed. Convinced that the creature may be Cole's producer, Cam Travers (somehow transformed), Tess begs "Cam" for answers about Cole's survival before she is slashed two times. Lincoln manages to trap the creature in a container found in the panic room before he throws it overboard.
The next day, Clark is in the editing bay when he spies on Kurt and he overhears the security expert report to someone via radio that he will put down Cole if he found "the source." On the deck of the ship, Tess is ready to give up, but Lincoln is suddenly convinced that Cole is alive and that there really is magic in the undiscovered country of the Amazon. On the eighth day, Jahel and Emilio restore full power to the Magus while Lincoln, Clark and Lena go over Cole's tapes in the hope of finding clues to his location.
That night, a dragonfly crawls down Jahel's throat while she is sleeping. When she awakens, she seeks out Tess and the spirit of Cole speaks through her to his wife by urging Tess to leave. But after a few moments, Jahel convulses and passes out. As Jahel's father and the rest of the crew watch over Jahel, Tess relates what she was told, including the detail that Cole is alive and being held against his will. After some convincing, everyone but Emilio leaves the ship to pursue their latest lead.
On the ninth day of the expedition, the crew finds a burial ground in the jungle where English explorers and robber barons are resting beneath crude graves. They also find a "spirit tree" with dolls tied to its branches. Lincoln also finds his childhood teddy bear, Marbeley tied to the spirit tree and reclaims it as a sign that Cole had been there. The group also hears a child's voice calling out of her mother, but a freaky monkey with a doll's head on its face is all they find before it scampers off. At night, some of the dolls seem to supernaturally move and observe the camp. Meanwhile, back on the Magus, Emilio tries to convince his comatose daughter to release Cole's spirit before its passing harms her.
Late in the night, a supernatural force pulls Lincoln into the forest while he is still in his tent. Alarmed, the group decides to leave. But when they head towards the Magus, Tess is grabbed by something and nearly pulled under the water of a shallow stream. Even A.J. confirms that he saw a hand grabbing Tess to a skeptical Clark. Lena then shares a story that Cole told her about La Dejada (the Abandoned One), a young girl who drowned while trying to recover her doll from the river. According to local legend, the girl's spirit lures people out to drown them, hence the gifts left behind on the spirit tree.
Going back to the spirit tree, Kurt orders Lincoln to return his teddy bear to the tree; which falls off again two more times. The third time, Kurt ties the bear himself, but several other dolls fall as well. As the group flees in panic, they are surprised to find themselves back at the tree after a few minutes. But Tess is caught by the stream and pulled under by the vengeful spirit of the dead girl. Unable to find his mother in the water, Lincoln suggests that they give the drowned girl her mother back. So they dig up the grave of the girl's mother(!) and toss her bones into the stream(!!). Several moments later, Tess emerges from the mother's grave, alive but shaken.
On the tenth day, the crew returns to the Magus. Lincoln visits Jahel, who is still mostly unconscious. Trying to speak to his father, Lincoln promises Cole that he will protect him, but asks for a sign of where he is. Just then, Jahel coughs up the dragonfly, which escapes out the window. The young girl then apologizes to Lincoln for not holding on to Cole's spirit longer. But Jahel insists that Cole is still alive… somewhere.
Oren Peli is best known for the "Paranormal Activity" film series, which have been highly successful low budget films that use the "found footage" technique. More than that, Peli seems to be relaying on "found footage" so heavily that it's going to be his defining characteristic as a filmmaker. It's his shtick, his gimmick, much like the "twist ending" became M. Night Shyamalan's trademark early in his career… which is a tag that Shyamalan hasn't been able to shake since.
In "The River," Peli is trying to recreate his previous success on the small screen by using "found footage" as the basis for the series. Unfortunately, Peli doesn't seem to realize that the gimmick can work on movie screens in part because films are more finite. They're usually over in ninety minutes or two hours. A TV series is a different beast entirely, and it's asking a lot of the audience to make them sit through eight hour-long episodes of these shaky visuals.
For "The River," the found footage technique actually makes the series seem less real than if it was shot conventionally. The best example of this is the opening scene in which Tess approaches Lincoln about going on the expedition while the camera crew is already rolling. It's a ludicrous moment, because any mother who loves her son the way that Tess seems to care for Lincoln wouldn't subject him to that kind of "gotcha" moment. But because this series has to be entirely made up of "found footage," the only way to include that scene is to make both Clark and Tess look like huge jerks towards Lincoln.
The premise for "The River" is actually pretty good. In a world where civilization is almost everywhere, the Amazon can still be a compellingly unknown and alien setting with just a touch of the supernatural. For the most part, I enjoyed the first hour of the pilot despite some occasionally shaky performances from the cameramen, the engineer and his daughter.
If I was going to judge Lincoln simply on how he was written, I probably would have hated him. But Joe Anderson manages to be likable enough that I'm willing to go with his performance. Although Lincoln's turn towards being a believer in the magic of the Amazon and of his dad's survival seemed to come out of nowhere in the first hour's closing moments; I still felt that the show had a lot of potential.
Then the second hour started.
I don't think that I've ever seen a show jump the shark in just its second episode, but "The River" may have pulled off that trick. The tone of "Marbeley" seemed very different from "Magus." But what really bothered me was the quick way that everyone on the crew accepted the reality of the supernatural occurrences and how to deal with them.
"Oh, you mean a spirit has dragged my mother under the lake because she wants her mommy? Well, clearly we need to dig up her mother's bones and toss them in the stream to get my mom back!"
And then it actually works! Thanks to the power of lazy writing! That wasn't even the only time that this happened. Even the hardened bad ass, Kurt made Lincoln return his teddy bear so that they wouldn't face further repercussions from the spirit. Should I even get started about the magic dragonfly that allows the still living spirit of Cole to invade Jahel's body… which no one questions?!?
It's one thing to keep an open mind to the supernatural and for some of the crew to start believing in it. But all of them at once?! Only Clark seems to have any skepticism, but not for long.
There's also an attempt to build up some intrigue among the crew of the Magus, with Kurt reporting to someone else about Cole's survival and Lena acting suspiciously. On a non-found footage show, those angles may have played more strongly. But because the format is what it is, the revelations didn't carry much dramatic impact. Also, Clark overheard what Kurt said and he doesn't even act any differently towards him after that reveal. I can see Clark not wanting to tip his hand too soon, but that needed some kind of follow up in the second episode.
I actually like the footage of Cole and his family in the past more than the present day sequences. Bruce Greenwood has the best acting presence on the show and Cole seems like the most interesting character around… even when he's not actually around. There was also an intriguing suggestion that Clark and Tess may have been inappropriately close at one point.
It should also be noted that it felt like Lena's late addition to the story happened because the producers seemed to realize that Lincoln had no love interest without her. The second episode hints that Lena is tied more deeply to Cole's mission than she realizes, but it was the clips of the younger Lincoln and Lena that seemed to flesh them out a little bit more than their adult counterparts.
Because there was such a discrepancy between the two episodes, I'm going to split the rating between them. "The River" may find its path eventually, but it's definitely not there yet.
Episode 1.01 "Magus"
Crave Online Rating: 7 out of 10.
Episode 1.02 "Marbeley"
Crave Online Rating: 5 out of 10.