Mixing elements of reality TV, “The Blair Witch Project” and “Heart of Darkness,” “The River” is one of those pilots it’s hard not to admire, even if the longterm prospects for its journey remain shrouded in mystery. The search for an intrepid explorer and TV showman a la the late Steve Irwin brings together an unlikely band of adventurers with possibly conflicting motives. Throw in an eerie dose of mysticism, and there’s no shortage of rivulets to follow, as well as the considerable risk of the series getting lost in the jungle thickets of its dense mythology.
The show-within-a-show conceit — with all this being chronicled by cameras for a planned series — works fitfully, in much the way “The Office” has become a documentary about an office in name only. But it offers the excuse to set events in motion, as old footage introduces Dr. Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood), who went missing in the Amazon after two decades hosting a franchise titled “The Undiscovered Country.”
Joining the expedition to find him aboard a high-tech riverboat is his wife, Tess (Leslie Hope), and grown son, Lincoln (Joe Anderson). The kid is a reluctant addition, forced to come along by the ruthless network producer (Paul Blackthorne), presumably to enhance the drama.
They’re joined by, among others, a gruff boat captain (Thomas Kretschmann, echoing his “King Kong” role); a former associate of Cole’s (Daniel Zacapa); and the latter’s daughter (Paulina Gaitan), who keeps warning — in subtitled Spanish — of the perils they face from a creature (maybe the smoke monster’s long-“Lost” cousin) lurking outside in the darkness.
OK, so “Gilligan’s Island” this isn’t. The script by Michael Green and Michael R. Perry (with an additional story credit to exec producer Oren Peli, the director of “Paranormal Activity”) races ahead — probably a little too fast for its own good — into the meat of the series, presumably allowing for greater exposition and flashbacks downstream.
What emerges in the pilot is claustrophobic, tense, chaotic and a little scary, with Cole being shown saying he’s “so close to the source” of something that might go well beyond mere science. A second hour also has its moments — there’s an especially creepy sequence involving dolls — but it also illustrates how easily the shaky camera, ghostly spirits and unseen threats can begin growing tedious without belching out some genuine answers, soon.
“The River” sets out stocked with a strong cast and great expanse of uncharted territory (shot in Hawaii and often gorgeous to look at) yawning out ahead of it. In addition, ABC has already scored an improbable coup this season with a conceptually daring drama — “Once Upon a Time” — so there’s room for hope despite a 9 p.m. slot where the broadcast networks have largely struggled with new hours.
Whether “The River” can successfully navigate those waters is a crapshoot, but the series’ own journey rather neatly mirrors that of its lost hero: The pilot is close to something big. Actually finding it provides the show’s own offscreen mystery.