Ellen Gray: Steven Spielberg is co-producer of new show 'The River' on ABC

Posted: February 07, 2012

THE RIVER. 9 tonight, 6 ABC.

HOW FAR WOULD you follow Steven Spielberg?

The second much-anticipated series credited to the uber-producer in two days - either the man never sleeps or he's been cloned - tonight's premiere of ABC's "The River," with its shaky, grainy camera shots, "found" footage and dearth of production numbers, bears little resemblance to NBC's "Smash."

But they're both about putting on a show.

It's a long-running series, "The Undiscovered Country," that's made explorer and wildlife Dr. Emmett Cole (Bruce Greenwood) a beloved TV personality.

Like the late Steve "Crocodile Hunter" Irwin, Cole had incorporated his family into his work, and six months after he disappears and is presumed dead, it's his widow, Tess, and their son, Lincoln, who are brought together by Cole's former producer, Clark Quietly (Paul Blackthorne) to search for the missing star, whose locator beacon has inexplicably gone off in the Amazon.

Everyone has their reasons for making the trip. Tess believes her husband's still alive and needs her. Lincoln, who's less certain on both these points, seems to be working through issues of his own. And Clark? Clark figures there's at least one more episode to be wrested from "The Undiscovered Country" and is funding the search-and-rescue mission in return for the right to capture every scary - and private - moment of it on film.

Cole's catchphrase had been, "There's magic out there," and the river in question being one frequently associated with magical realism, surreal and scary moments come with the territory.

Co-created by Oren Peli, whose low-budget thriller "Paranormal Activity" first brought him to Spielberg's attention, "The River" makes effective use of the idea that sometimes it's the things you can't see so clearly - or at all - that are the scariest. (If only ABC hadn't extended that philosophy to its online screeners: Those for tonight's two-hour premiere, viewed by critics on a password-protected site, obscured many of the occasional subtitles with legal warnings.)

Fans of "American Horror Story's" kitchen-sink method might wish for more fake blood, but I prefer more subtlety, and "The River's" second hour, particularly, struck me as plenty creepy.

Still, I'm not sure how long I'll want to follow a missing-person story, even one set on the world's second-longest river.

In an ABC press conference last month, Peli, a software programmer who filmed the first "Paranormal Activity" in his own home, admitted his original idea for "The River" had involved a movie, not a weekly series.

Even after Spielberg suggested, " 'Hey, we should do a television show together,' " Peli said, he didn't think of "The River" as a longer-form project until he'd mentioned the idea of a missing documentary crew and the second crew sent to look for them to "Paranormal Activity 2" screenwriter (and show co-creator) Michael R. Perry, who suggested that "every episode, they get into another adventure."

And one, suggested another of the show's executive producers, Michael Green ("Kings"), that "is its own horror film that you can watch and enjoy and not even have to participate, if you don't want to, in the ongoing mystery."

The model, Green told reporters, is less "Lost" than "The X-Files" (although, like "Lost," "The River" is filmed in Hawaii).

If that's true, then the quest that begins tonight is for something far more precious to broadcasters than one missing scientist: It's for that elusive show with both an obsessive, cultlike following and widespread popularity.

I'm not convinced such a creature exists, but if it does, the Amazon's as good a place as any to begin looking.

Send email to graye@phillynews.com.

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