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'The River' bosses on lessons from 'Lost'

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The River Show ABC
Mario Perez/ABC

ABC’s The River has garnered about as much positive buzz as any midseason show, which is to say it’s been received about ten times better than 90 percent of fall’s offerings. That’s promising. More promising? The show’s executive producers Zack Estrin and Michael Green have a collective knowledge and appreciation for so-called genre television that has well-prepared them for the impending trek down The River. And they want you to feel ready for the journey, too.

So here’s their advice and a (spoiler-free!) preview of what’s to come as you gear up for the ride:

1. YOU WILL GET SCARED…BUT NOT TO DEATH

The general consensus? The River is scary. Be ready for that. But the show is, as Green says, nothing you should lose sleep over. “We were definitely going for a roller coaster, meaning a thrill ride that you know you’ll be safe on and you’ll have fun going on — not a car accident that you want to avoid,” he says. “And we equate the torture porn — Hostel/Saw kind of movies — as a car accident we would avoid at all costs.” It’s more Poltergeist than Saw, assesses Estrin. “But you know what else do I think is important to know? Don’t watch it alone,” he says.

2. ‘PACK YOUR CYNICISM AT THE DOOR’

As fans of so-called genre-TV themselves, Estrin and Green know viewers often feel burned when answers are sacrificed to the cancellation gods, but, says Estrin, it’s no time to give up the quest for a show that will stick. “There’s been a lot of genre fans who feel jilted [when] other shows — whether it be V or Flash Forward or any of these other things — that have had shorter lives than hoped. So quite often they will approach a show already angry that something bad’s going to happen,” says Estrin. “We’ve even seen on the boards, people are [saying], ‘I’m not going to watch this simply because ABC was mean to F Troop in 19-whatever.’ We have had such an amazing experience with the new regime at ABC, who was so completely supportive of taking these kind of big risks. I really think it’s a new era of TV and fans have a lot to be excited for.” Adds Green: “[The network] wants this to work, so maybe they have 20 million friends they can bring.”

3. SEASON ONE IS ONLY 8 EPISODES

8 hours = a day at work; four movies; or a Sex and the City marathon on E! In the realm of 22-episode network TV, this isn’t, comparatively, a huge commitment. Estrin says this truncated season and cable model approach is just what they were hoping for. “I think what’s fantastic is that networks now are sort of looking at the cable model and thinking that there’s something to that,” he says. “If it’s just tune-out TV, you can certainly do 22 [episodes] because you know that there’s a good guy and a bad guy, and someone’s going to be caught at the end. You don’t need to think about it, so you can tune in for however many you want to. But if you’re doing these kinds of shows, I think doing limited runs like cable does — like Walking Dead, that’s proven to be a big success — people are willing to give it their all for a short amount of time and then go away and come back with anticipation.”

4. THEY LEARNED FROM ‘LOST’

Lost‘s six-season run was, admittedly, filled with creative peaks and valleys. And as fans of the series, Estrin and Green have given much thought to the lessons that lie in both. “The biggest lesson for me is that fans of genre television have gotten so good at watching genre television that we get to make more and better genre television. They’ve proven to networks and studios who have to pay for all this that people respond better when the shows are better and that they watch the show leaning forward, with their intelligence turned on,” he says. “There was a lot of assumption early on that people liked to watch television passively, and genre television watchers and fans of Lost and shows like it have just done a tremendous service by saying, ‘No, no, no, we are watching with our whole hearts open, and we want our attention to be rewarded with experience.'” For Estrin, the biggest take-away was the importance of pay off. “One of the things that we are definitely both hyper-sensitive of is that we’re not going to be dragging out one question for six years of television. The question of ‘Where is Emmett Cole?’ is not THE question of the series, it’s just the first question,” he says. “The show is called The River, after all; it’s not called The Search for Emmett Cole. There’s much bigger things out there than the first thing we’re asking you this season.”

5. …AND ‘THE KILLING’

“Our staff writer actually worked on The Killing, so she came into this saying, ‘Hey guys, whatever you do, don’t do what we did at the end of The Killing,'” Estrin says with a chuckle. “So we certainly took that to heart. We’re not going to leave everybody hanging.” In fact, he says, the end of the season, “is simply bats–t crazy.”

(Marc Snetiker contributed to this report.)