by Chris Saccaro
So after five formulaic episodes that did absolutely nothing to further the plot, or give us any definitive clue on the whereabouts of famed missing explorer Emmet Cole, “The River” gives us an episode that shakes things up a bit, in terms of episode structure and plot.
After conveniently finding more missing tapes in the jungle, the entire episode consists of the crew watching and dissecting the footage. There are no mystical forces interrupting their viewing party, which allows them (and by extension, the audience) to watch the footage straight through.
One of the reasons this is a surprisingly great decision is that we don’t have to sit through the mediocre acting of the main cast, save for a few dramatic reactions to what’s happening on the tapes. This allows a great acting performance by Bruce Greenwood (Emmet Cole), in a mostly solo performance. In these tapes, we witness the gradual degradation of his quality of life as he tries to survive alone in the jungle, and he handles it brilliantly. It becomes painful to watch, as he lies starving with a broken ankle, debating on eating his only companion–his dog. For a show that prides itself on suspense and horror, this is probably the series’ most suspenseful moment. It’s easy to put dolls in a haunted tree and elicit fear, but building tension over eating a beloved pet for survival is skillful and a welcome addition to the show.
With the discovery of these new tapes, the plot also begins to move along nicely. By the end, we get a clear location of where Emmet was last seen alive, and it’s not some random patch of trees in the jungle! It’s a base camp of some sorts. However, after finding the location, the crew discovers that it has since been abandoned. And just like that, intrigue has been brought back into the show. The crew isn’t chasing after a crazy pipe dream hoping that Emmet is still alive. They know for a fact that Emmet was there. And now they are finally off the river and must look into what happened to this base camp.
One can only hope that this change in location means the crew will no longer be finding random tapes at convenient times. Yes, “The River” is a found footage show, however this doesn’t mean that the crew has to constantly figure out plot elements through “found footage”. It simply means that what the audience is currently watching is footage left behind by the fictional production crew.
This episode has definitely been the strongest of the season thus far, and that’s primarily because the main cast plays a very small role in the overall story. But there is something fundamentally wrong with a show whose main cast members are so disconnected from each other; especially when their mutual history aboard the Magus is a huge portion of the back-story. Perhaps the writers were hoping that the supernatural aspects of the show would distract the audience from the poor performances.
Unfortunately, the slight uptick in quality didn’t translate to the show’s ratings. “The River” continues to perform poorly week after week, which means that it may be too late for the show to prove itself after so many failed chances.
Chris Saccaro is a contributing writer. Email him at email@example.com.