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Saturday, March 06, 2021

TV Rewind | The River: When Paranormal Activity met Lost

Executive produced by Steven Spielberg and created by Oren Peli and Michael R Perry, The River had a short run of one season but it genuinely had the potential for a lot more.

Written by Sampada Sharma | New Delhi |
January 23, 2021 8:00:36 am
the river tv rewindThe River had a short run of one season on ABC.

The release of the first Paranormal Activity film in 2007 changed the game for the horror genre. What was once known for being hammy and gory, the genre now found itself exploring the rough appeal of found-footage style and the audience loved it. In 2012, the genre was still in its heyday and ABC was yet to find the perfect replacement for Lost, the drama that had become the template for mystery television, so the network came up with The River.

Executive produced by Steven Spielberg, The River was initially pitched as a movie but Spielberg suggested that this should be a TV show as it had the potential for a long-format.

What is The River all about?

The River opens with the mystery of a TV personality Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood), quite like Steve Irwin or Bear Grylls, who goes missing while on a mission in the Amazon. The world has assumed he is dead but things change when six-months after his disappearance, his emergency beacon sends a signal. His wife (Leslie Hope) puts together a team to go deep into the jungle so they can rescue him. The jungle in The River is a Lost-like world where everything exists with a hint of surreal magic and it appears that no one will be able to escape successfully.

Cole’s wife gets their estranged son Lincoln (Joe Anderson) to help in the rescue mission but to get the funds for this rescue attempt, they have to make a deal with Cole’s shrewd business partner and thus, they agree to get the mission filmed. Paul Blackthorne, who played Capt Russell in Lagaan, played this role menacingly as the show producer who is more interested in filming the mother-son fights than actually looking for Cole.

Created by Oren Peli and Michael R Perry, The River had a short run of just one season but it genuinely had the potential for a lot more.

the river tv show Paul Blackthorne plays a shrewd producer in The River. (Photo: ABC)

What worked for The River?

When it debuted in 2012, The River was constantly compared to the Paranormal Activity films that brought back the found-footage formula in a commercially viable fashion and had given a new direction to the horror genre. Co-creator Oren Peli was one of the key people behind the Paranormal Activity franchise (director of the first film and producer of the others) and the elements that worked for the movies were quite visible in the show as well. The handheld shaky camera, the quick cuts, the constant spookiness that keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat, the perpetual darkness that makes you squint too hard to comprehend the events taking place on the screen – these were seen as the strengths of the show.

As far as the plot is concerned, The River was following in the footsteps of Lost as the show wanted to create a mythology for itself. With newer tribes, characters getting introduced every few episodes, the show wanted us to believe that the world inside the Amazon was inescapable. The best part about The River was the way it handled horror and mystery in a serialised fashion. With every new episode, another layer of mystery would be unravelled and just like any good mystery, it would raise even more questions.

horror tv show At the time of its premiere, The River was billed as the biggest TV show of the time. (Photo: ABC)

What did not work for The River?

The River wasn’t a bad show per se but it did not garner good ratings during its short run and was discontinued by the network, despite having Steven Spielberg as one of its executive producers.

In hindsight, it could be said that The River overwhelmed the audience with a whole lot of storylines in its initial episodes. From the tree with dolls to a tribe that blinds the crew, to the existence of cannibals in the area and even the shady rescue boat, The River was just a little extra in its plot. But then again, if the show had worked, this would have been its big plus.

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The River was in talks with Netflix for a revival but the plan never materialised.

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