ABC's supernatural thriller "The River," the first season of which is being released on DVD on May 22, 2012, is a decent show that likely would have succeeded better if the network had learned from the past. (More on this later.)
My personal spoiler alert is that the series provides adequate entertainment, including inadvertent humor, to warrant shelling out a Jackson.
The show's "pilot error" is perhaps its largest handicap; the primary reasons that I did not watch the show when it aired were that my Tivo was already bursting at the seams and I figured that I could buy the DVD set.
The bad news is that I probably would have stopped watching the show after its first episode if I had watched it when it aired; the good news is that later episodes improved to the point that I liked the series well enough to watch all eight episodes over a 24-hour period and predict that it would have done better if ABC had presented it more effectively.
"The River" is a modern-day "Stanley and Livingstone" story in which a reality television producer recruits the wife and 30-something son of Steve "The Crocodile Hunter" Irwinesque explorer and beloved nature show host Dr. Emmett Cole's to launch a filmed search for Cole six months after Cole's mysterious disappearance in the eerie Bouina region of the Amazon.
Series co-creator Oren Peli uses the hand-held camera and night-vision time-lapse filming that he utilized in his mega-hit film "Paranormal Activity."
Each episode had the cast following the last clue regarding Cole's whereabouts. Their tramping around angers a protective or vengeful spirit, a warrior tribe, or the "Others" who have many characteristics of the Black Pearl's crew.
Elements of the show "Lost" beyond including the "Others" include an isolated research center, a wonderfully loyal dog, and an underlying mysterious lore.
The problem is that pilot of "The River" was surprising uncompelling for an episode that was filmed to get people to want to watch the series; the characters were simply not very interesting, and did not improve much over the series, and the special effects were not especially creepy or shocking.
Additionally, the plot holes were large enough to accommodate a sedan and the characters did not respond to the perils realistically. Most notably, the cast immediately calmly went about their business after being terrorized and discovering a gruesome supernatural murder.
This sub-par pilot reminds me of Fox's well-publicized fatal error regarding the failed Fox witty Joss Whedon sci-fi show "Firefly." Rather than premiere with the pilot, which explained how the show's ragtag band of lovable outlaws came to live on a creaky spaceship, Fox aired a faster-paced episode that was hard to follow without knowing more about the characters.
Like "The River," "Firefly" likely would have lasted at least a full season if the network had done a better job introducing it to the public.
I am certain that ABC would have combined the hour-long pilot with the improved second episode and presented it at a TV Movie of the Week and added the series to its weekly lineup a few months later if this was 20 years ago. A similar strategy worked more recently when Fox aired the pilot of "Glee" several months before showing the second episode.
I believe as well that involving the wrong Steve hurt "The River." The positive influence of Executive Producer Steven Spielberg includes entertaining focus on a young Lincoln Cole in vintage footage of Emmett's "Undiscovered Country" show-within-a-show and current "Jurassic Park-like" scenes of the Amazon.
Although Spielberg's role almost definitely helped the ratings, another lesson from ABC's rich history would have been more beneficial. That network aired, mostly very good, Stephen King mini-series in the '90s.
If I were in the big chair at ABC, I would have seriously considered bringing King in and editing "The River's" eight-episodes into a three-hour six-hour mini-series. I then would have considered making that event into a weekly series if the critics and audience showed it adequate love.
Anyone with thoughts or questions regarding "The River" is encouraged to email me. I cannot help regarding how a boat can seemingly run for more than one month on one tank of gas.