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The Undiscovered Country has thrilled television audiences for 22 years, following Dr. Emmet Cole and his wife and son as they travel to exotic locales, examining the animal species that live there. Every week, Emmet extolled to families, “There’s magic out there.” That is, until he and his crew disappeared six months ago deep in the Amazon.
That’s the premise of ABC’s new supernatural-adventure series The River, which centers on Emmet’s wife Tess (Leslie Hope) and son Lincoln (Joe Anderson) as they set out with their own camera crew, encountering terrifying creatures in their search for the missing wildlife expert (Bruce Greenwood).
The drama employs techniques of cinéma vérité, reminiscent of producer Orin Peli’s Paranormal Activity movies, but plays with the conventions in a dynamic way.
Warning: A detailed recounting of the pilot episode follows.
The pilot opens with Tess trying to recruit her son to go on a journey: Emmet’s emergency beacon has begun broadcasting, and she needs his help to find it. Lincoln doesn’t want to go; he’s just about to finish his pre-med program and there is no love lost between he and his father. However, Emmet’s ex-producer Clark Quitely (Paul Blackthorne) is willing to finance the expedition only if both Coles are present and the mission is filmed documentary-style. Lincoln eventually agrees, but almost immediately clashes with the camera crew when it tries to elicit a typical reality show testimonial from him.
We meet Captain Kurt Bryndilson (Thomas Kretschmann), who has a large collection of guns, as well as Emilio (Daniel Zacapa), the engineer of Emmet’s ship The Magus who was let go just before the fateful trip, and his adolescent daughter Jahel (Paulina Gaitan), who speaks only Spanish and has a strange connection to the spirit world.
The boat and its crew finally come upon the source of the beacon’s signal, but there’s nothing there: no boat, no Emmet, nothing. They search underwater and only find a broken-open underwater safety cage with the beacon attached to it.
After this disappointment, the boat stops at a village, where a helicopter touches down, and out bounds an angry Lena Landry (Eloise Mumford), whose father disappeared along with Emmet. She thinks the missing Magus can be found on the Boiúna, a fork of the river that doesn’t appear on any map.
Although the revelation causes Jahel to freak out, the group heads down the silent and sinister Boiúna, where The Magus is discovered on the bank. When the crew members board the boat they hear pounding sounds coming from the ship’s panic room, which has been welded shut from the inside.
While Tess, Lincoln, Kurt and Lena puzzle out what to do, Quitely and his camera crew locate the editing room and power up the security cameras on the ship, discovering bloodstains on many of the walls.
Kurt power-saws his way into the panic room, which holds a foul smell, a strange shrine, and an odd, carved wooden object beneath a blanket. No Emmet, no living thing. But when Lincoln touches the egg-shaped wooden object, all hell breaks loose: a dark, immaterial shape flies from the egg, throwing Lincoln and Lena against the walls of the ship as it screams and vanishes into the night.
Searching the shrine, the camera crew discovers a photo of Cam Travis, producer on board The Magus when it vanished. Lena explains that he died of a fever or something, and was buried on the river bank. The revelation upsets Tess, who had no idea that Lena had contact with Emmet and the crew.
Jahel and Emilio examine the “wooden egg” – it’s actually a child’s coffin – and find that there’s dried blood inside. Jahel says the blood was used to capture the creature, a soul so evil that it was sent back to hell. The blood apparently made it stronger, and now it will hunt them to drink their blood.
With night falling, Lincoln prepares to leave only to discover someone (or something) has destroyed the rafts. Now the only way to get back to their boat is to make The Magus operational, a task Emilio insists will take two weeks. However, he’s given just two hours, until high tide.
Meanwhile, Lena shows the crew Emmet’s hidden tapes, which are filled with strange and wonderful things: Emmet walking on water, holding fire in his hands, and commanding dragonflies. There are also scarier images: strange, murky footage of something bloody and meaty hitting the deck of the ship, and Emmet thinking that the dark spirit hunting them is none other than the soul of the dead Cam Travers.
In the same tape, Emmet says reality breaks down the further they travel up the Boiúna, as they get closer to “The Source.” Before the tape cuts out, he says “Reality is so much bigger. … I have to see it.” Emmet wasn’t just talking about the magic of nature on his TV series; he was looking for real magic, and he seems to have found it.
As The Magus yanks free of the river bank, the creature attacks again, killing a cameraman and a destroying the engine, stranding the boat on the Boiúna. Lincoln grabs the wooden coffin, smearing it with his own blood in an attempt to capture the dark spirit. But Tess intervenes, begging for a chance to try to communicate with the creature: If it really is Travers, it will know what happened to Emmet. The creature turns on her, but it drawn to the blood in the coffin. Lincoln traps it within, and tosses the coffin into the river.
But the attack allowed Tess to communicate with Travers, who revealed that, yes, Emmet is still alive.
As the crew tends its wounds, Quitely notices Kurt blacking out cameras in his cabin. However, the captain leaves one, hidden in a grate, untouched. He speaks to someone on a radio, saying that he will put down Emmet if he found the Source.
Following the screening, moderator Maria Rizzo introduced the panelists, who joined the audience for a very short Q&A session: stars Leslie Hope, Eloise Mumford and Lincoln Cole, and producers Orin Peli, Michael Green and Zack Estrin.
On the topic of how and why they made The River, Green said, “We had some really strange opportunities.” He said that ABC and Warner Bros. wanted a show that wasn’t watered down, telling the producers to “make it as scary as you can … pull out all the stops.”
Peli added, “We wanted to make a scary show, but we don’t want to go for gore or anything like that. We want people to really be terrified … and WB says to go as scary as you want.”
“We want to reclaim the genre: Less Saw, more Poltergeist,” Estrin interjected.
Because of time constraints, only one audience member was able to ask a question, but it was a good one: As a mid-season pilot, can The River find an audience?
Estrin answered that “ABC’s been really smart” at “getting a good groundswell push on this show.” The producers are of a mind that with so many cool, new shows debuting in the fall, “a lot of times you can get lost” and they think that “mid-season is the best place to go.”
The River premieres in January 2012 on ABC.