Winter TV First Impression: ABC's The River Keeps the Paranormal Activity Flowing

The broadcast and major cable networks have nearly two dozen brand-new shows (hopefully) heating up primetime this winter. To help you sort through it all, TVLine is presenting a few First Impressions. Next on our list is.…

THE SHOW | ABC’s The River (Tuesdays at 9/8c, premiering Feb. 7 with back-to-back episodes)

THE COMPETITION | NCIS: Los Angeles (CBS), New Girl and Raising Hope/Breaking In (Fox), The Biggest Loser (NBC) and Ringer (The CW)

THE CAST | Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek), Leslie Hope (24), Paul Blackthorne (Lipstick Jungle), Joe Anderson (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn), Eloise Mumford (Lone Star) and others

Save the Dates: February Premieres and Finales!

THE SET-UP | Created by Oren Peli (Paranormal Activity) and Michael R. Perry (Paranormal Activity 2), this eight-part chiller revolves around a crew of family, friends and other “interested” parties who brave uncharted reaches of the Amazon River in the name of finding Dr. Emmet Cole (Greenwood), a wildlife expert and TV personality who went missing six months prior during an expedition, but whose emergency beacon has suddenly been activated. Hope and Anderson play Cole’s wife and son, Blackthorne the producer of his TV docuseries, and Mumford the daughter of a cameraman who also vanished. Others on board include Shaun Parkes (Strike Back) as a cameraman documenting the search, Thomas Kretschmann (King Kong) as a vaguely defined security expert, and Daniel Zacapa (Resurrection Blvd.) and newcomer Paulina Gaitán as the boat mechanic and his daughter.

More Winter TV First Impressions: NBC’s The Firm,
Showtime’s House of Lies, NBC’s Smash, Fox’s Alcatraz

THE PROS | The River wants to scare you — more specifically, to unsettle you — and make no mistake, it will. If the promos have you thinking there is just one “thing” preying on the explorers during their journey, you’d be very wrong. Rather, each stop along the way — including an ancient graveyard guarded by super-creepy children’s dolls — seems to boast its own sort of bogeyman or malevolent watchman. Keeping tensions high are the close quarters of the boat scenes, the fuzzy night-vision footage from the vessel’s array of all-seeing cameras, and the show’s tendency to have things get very, very, very quiet… verrryquiet… and then SUDDENLY! get very LOUD! and SCREAMY! Greenwood appears regularly via flashbacks and discovered videotapes. Fun fact: Gaitán didn’t speak a lick of English when she took the role and delivers her dialogue almost exclusively in Spanish, which isn’t very helpful when her character is trying to alert the others to freaky stuff about which she seems especially attuned. Episode 3 features an inspired twist that has the crew flying blind, so to speak, and will have you on the edge of your seat. Do characters die every week? No, but only because the poor things don’t get off that easy. If this sort of fare — served up by the creator/director of Paranormal Activity himself — is your cup of tea (as it is mine), fire up your biggest flat screen, pump up the Dolby, turn off all the lights and enjoy the wild ride.

THE CONS | The River is extremely plot-driven, so even several episodes in, I can barely tell you who so-and-so is beyond the four leads, especially the brooding “security” type who tends to whisper-mumble his lines — and since at times we’re supposed to be wary of one person’s agenda or another’s, that can be problematic. The stretches between thrills ‘n’ chills can feel repetitive, consisting largely of “We must got back!”/”But no, there’s a new sign Emmet’s alive — ignore the latest crazy [bleep] that almost killed us all and forge on!” The show doesn’t routinely require huge leaps of logic (e.g. unlabeled tapes of Cole’s aren’t magically sifted through for pertinent data), but you may start wondering about the forever-filming cameraman’s battery charges and such. Though most of the weekly twists are cool (e.g. someone has a curious birthmark), there’s one soapy reveal that will make you audibly groan. The aforementioned quiet/LOUD! thing can get annoying in that you’ll be frantically toggling between the up/down volume buttons on your remote.

THE TVLINE BOTTOM LINE | The best thing The River has going for it, outside of its well-utilized Paranormal pedigree, is its freshman season’s eight-episode run, so for the time being there isn’t much concern about whether this journey has legs. It is unlike anything on all of TV right now — this isn’t family-friendly Terra Nova, folks — so it will be interesting to see how many viewers it scares up and then doesn’t scare away.

Watch a video preview for The River, then vote in our poll below.