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The River series premiere recap: Shall We Gather at 'The River'?

A ragtag crew journeys up the Amazon — and down the rabbit hole — looking for enigmatic reality star Dr. Emmet Cole

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The River Bruce Greenwood

The River

Current Status:
Mel Gibson, Sissy Spacek, Scott Glenn
Mark Rydell

“Who would Fardels bear,

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

But that the dread of something after death,

The undiscovered Country, from whose bourn

No Traveller returns, Puzzles the will,

And makes us rather bear those ills we have,

Than fly to others that we know not of.”

Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1

When Shakespeare opened Hamlet’s soliloquy with “To be or not to be,” he asked the fundamental question of human existence: Why do we not spare ourselves life’s many sufferings, knowing that we all share the same destination anyway, by embracing death? Well, as he often did, the Bard answered his own question. The fact is we don’t know “what dreams may come” once we’ve passed into the “undiscovered country,” as he called it, and in our darkest hours it may be fear alone that stays our hand.

When Dr. Emmet Cole used the phrase The Undiscovered Country, he meant his long-running wildlife-adventure TV show of the same name, which seems like the fevered brainchild of Jack Hanna, Steve Irwin, and Merian C. Cooper. But the tagline of Cole’s series, corn-fed though it is, speaks to the other, more joyous reason why we choose life: “There’s magic out there.”

Too heady for white-knuckled genre fare like The River? Maybe. But I want to get in my Shakespeare quote ahead of time, before someone on this show beats me to the punch. Like Lost before it, The River seems crammed with pop (and high) culture references. Not to mention some goosebump-worthy mysteries, a few genuinely freaky images of the natural and supernatural worlds butting heads, and a whole lot of daddy issues.

Yeah, about that last bit. Steven Spielberg, master dramatist of family dynamics under extraordinary circumstances, is serving as executive producer on The River. Sure, he released The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse during the same week this past December. So what? On the small screen, he’s got EP credits on four different series right now: Terra Nova, Falling Skies, and Smash round out the lot.

The other obvious contributor to The River’s cultural DNA? Oren Peli, the Israeli-born software-designer-turned-horror-movie-maestro who directed the 2009 hidden-camera scarefest Paranormal Activity. Like that film, The River tells its story via “found footage,” in this case video shot by a reality TV camera crew documenting the journey of Emmet’s wife and son, Tess and Lincoln, as they search for him in some of the still uncharted recesses of the Amazon.

I’m not going to lie. The first hour failed to grab me with its documentary breathlessness—five days are covered in the first 12 minutes—and I thought the found footage approach to be self-consciously showy and oddly distancing, with its insistence on bleeped-out profanity, sometimes untranslatable subtitles, and grainy video interlace. That said, the second hour showed true potential, with some solid scares that worked for me because I found myself genuinely caring for these characters. Let’s go through this particular crew manifest, shall we?

NEXT: A rundown of all the major players, their strange motives, and even stranger accents