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

By Christian Blauvelt
February 08, 2012 at 03:00 PM EST
ABC
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  • Movie

“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

LINCOLN COLE (Joe Anderson)

Occupation: Ph.D. candidate

Personality: Like the hero of any Lost knockoff, Lincoln has daddy issues. His cool, level-headed, rational approach to the wonders of nature make him the Man of Science to his father’s Man of Faith. Known to say things like “Discoveries are made in the lab, not the jungle” and occasionally let slip a British accent. Lincoln sparred with his father a lot, even throwing his teddy bear into the Indian Ocean and vowing never to set foot on his dad’s ship, the Magus, again. Willing to give up the search for his dad, until his mom brings news that his locator beacon has been discovered.

TESS COLE (Leslie Hope)

Occupation: Wife of husbands in distress (see also: Teri Bauer), though occasionally in distress herself.

Personality: Indefatigable, guilt-ridden, and indefatigably guilt-ridden. She cheated on her husband, Emmet, and is trying to make up for it by keeping the search for him going even six months after he disappeared.

LENA LANDRY (Eloise Mumford)

Occupation: Undiscovered Country production assistant

Personality: The tank-top-wearing daughter of Emmet’s also-missing cameraman was Lincoln’s childhood playmate aboard the Magus. As she grew up, she started helping with the production of The Undiscovered Country and ended up closer to Emmet than Lincoln himself. Thinks scars are sexy. So she’s really sexy after she’s scarred by an angry spirit in the first episode.

CLARK QUIETLY (Paul Blackthorne)

Occupation: Reality TV producer, showrunner of The Undiscovered Country.

Personality: Vaguely sinister. Has British accent, which is how we know he’s vaguely sinister. Willing to fund expedition to find Emmet if every moment is documented by his camera crew for future broadcast. Known to say lines like “The show was never about adventure or magic. It was about product.”

CAPTAIN KURT BRYNILDSON (Thomas Kretschmann)

Occupation: Security chief

Personality: Vaguely Teutonic. Provides muscle-for-hire to the Undiscovered Country crew, so it’s good business for him to be intimidating. Spends most of his days glowering and warning Tess to turn back. May be a traitor…a hidden camera caught him saying, “Cole may still be alive. If he found the Source, I’ll put him down.”

ANDREAS JUDE “A.J.” POULAIN (Shaun Parkes)

Occupation: Undiscovered Country camera operator

Personality: A true sidekick to Clark Quietly, A.J. is cynical, money-grubbing, and also kinda menacing. The type of guy who sees a shaky video of his series star looking absolutely terrified and says, “We just got a second season.”

EMILIO VALENZUELA (Daniel Zacapa)

Occupation: Magus mechanic/translator for his daughter, Jahel

Personality: Gruff SOB, resents hotness of daughter.

JAHEL VALENZUELA (Paulina Guitan)

Occupation: Daughter/occasional helmsman

Personality: Possibly the first consistently subtitled network TV character since the heyday of Jin and Sun Kwon and Hiro Nakamura, Jahel functions as a kind of oracle, predicting doom for our castaways.

NEXT: A mysterious tropical setting with a tree-rattling monster lurking in the forest. Sound familiar?

The Mission Begins

So our ragtag band of latter-day explorers began their journey upriver. Cryptic clues lay in their path, snatches of eye-catching images specifically designed to give Lost-ophiles still suffering from withdrawal some fodder for heated Internet chatter. The best? An underwater cage that had been burst open by whatever had been trapped inside. But before the pilot began to stink too hard of pickled red herring, the team came upon Emmet’s locating beacon…at the bottom of the river. Ever industrious Lena was able to chart the river currents back to where the beacon may have originated. In all likelihood that was where the Magus would be. And so it was! But still no Emmet to be found. However, the team did discover dozens of tapes he had recorded of the Magus’ final expedition, many of which showed that the “magic” he thought was “out there” was pretty darn real. How else do you explain his ability to seemingly hold a fireball in his hands?

The other big mystery on board lay inside the panic room. But like that dented underwater cage, this panic room seemed more designed to keep something locked in rather than intruders locked out. The door had been welded shut, so it took a while to open it up. When Lincoln stepped inside, he overturned an oblong, wooden disc that kind of looked like a flattened coconut. It sprang to life and fled the Magus, jumping into the trees and rustling the foliage with a supernatural vengeance not seen since the Smoke Monster rattled those island forests on Lost. Apparently, it was a “dry spirit,” a soul so big that the Earth wouldn’t take it…but neither would the Devil. So it wanders the earth, feeding on blood to become stronger, like some spirit world Chupacabra, or Voldemort during his days feasting on unicorn blood. In its escape it even slashed open Lena so it could feast on her tasty blood.

Emmet had thought it was one of his crew who had died, a guy named Cam. Well, if it was a member of the crew, surely it must know whether Emmet is still alive, right? Tess sliced open her hand to lure it back, then asked him to respond once if he knew Emmet was dead, twice if he’s still alive. He came zooming in to her palm, and scratched her twice. Emmet lives!

NEXT: Christmas With the Coles!

Needless to say, it was kind of an odd first threat for our team to face. Not to mention an odd choice of plotting to begin this series. But the second episode, “Marbeley,” settled in for some real storytelling. We flashed back to Christmas 1989 aboard the Magus, when Emmet told his viewers that, though the magic may be “out there,” you can find magic with your family too. Though apparently not enough magic to dissuade you from abandoning your family to face vengeful spirits up the Amazon, but there you go.

Anyway, around that particular Christmas, Emmet decided to show Lincoln a talisman a shaman in Mali had given him that someday he would give, in turn, to a child he perceived would be strong enough. Strong enough for what? He didn’t know, but he would know when the time came. Still, the shaman’s emphatic viewpoint that life and death were one and the same—and that he knew that he himself would never die—certainly intrigued. So much so that Lincoln even drew the outline of the talisman on his beloved teddy bear.

Back to the present: Lena also provided rudimentary medical care to Emmet every now and then, and she remembered that shortly before he disappeared he had developed an infection in his thumb. Therefore, if she went through his dozens of tapes, she could identify the most recent ones by the extent of the infection, and maybe get a fix on his location based on the backgrounds in those videos. Love a girl who’s into triangulation! But it wasn’t too necessary, since a magical dragonfly at that very moment decided to fly down Jahel’s throat, thus possessing her and allowing her to be a mouthpiece for…Emmet! I’ve got to admit, I feared the presence of that magical bug might herald the imminent arrival of Owl City’s “Fireflies” on the soundtrack, but instead Emmet announced through his teenage relay, “They have me.” When Emilio asked “Emmet” where the party could find him, he said, “They won’t. I know what’s out there. I have to protect them.”

NEXT: I think Tim Burton’s just found a sequel for Corpse BrideCorpse Mommy!

Meanwhile, the rest of the crew had already begun a hike inland. They discovered a creepy tree creepily adorned with creepy dolls, when, amazingly, a monkey wore a doll’s head over its face like a mask. Lincoln didn’t have to look far until he saw his childhood teddy bear in the tree—the same bear he had thrown into the Indian Ocean when he was 16 years old. Somehow this Teddy had ended up on this tree—meaning that his father must have retrieved it from the water all those years ago only to part with it here, or this tree has some friends in Sumatra. Shouldn’t be a problem taking him back, right? Uh-uh, like taking candy from a baby.

But as Mr. Burns discovered on The Simpsons, sometimes a baby can fight back. Apparently, this was a spirit tree. A vengeful spirit lived there, and the only way to appease him-her-it was to leave behind dolls.

Think this is just a made-for-TV superstition? Think again. I remember visiting Mary King’s Close in Edinburgh and seeing a shrine set up in honor of a little girl who was a 17th-century plague victim, a shrine where visitors to this day were encouraged to leave dolls for her to play with in the afterlife. The only difference is that the spirit they’re trying to appease on The River can make the heads of her dolls demonically spin…and can drag you through the woods and under water if you take one of her toys. This spirit wanted only one thing more than a collection of the most unsettling dolls you’ve seen since Big Baby in Toy Story 3: a mother. So it dragged Tess underwater near the spot where Lena remembered a little girl was rumored to have drowned. And this spirit would keep Tess in her watery grasp until they could make a Mommy Swap.

Luckily, Lena and Lincoln came up with the idea of finding the mother of the deceased little girl in a nearby graveyard, digging up her body, and dumping her into the river. It was easily the most disturbing episode of Wife Swap since Ted Haggard’s and Gary Busey’s spouses traded places, but the river spat back Tess to the land of the living. No wonder Emmet doesn’t want them following him! But I suspect that their chances are better with Lena in tow, since another flashback at the end teased that she’s actually the “strong one” who should have received the talisman—after all, she had its pattern as a birthmark on the back of her neck.

What did you think of the premiere of The River? Were you well and truly hooked? Check out EW’s interview with the producers, and join us each week for our recaps.

More from EW.com:

‘The River’ premiere review: Take me to the river, wash me in the scary

‘The River’ bosses on their lessons from ‘Lost,’ four other things you should know before watching the premiere

Go behind-the-scenes with the cast of ‘The River’ — EXCLUSIVE VIDEO

‘The River’ Cast: Where You’ve Seen Them Before

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