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The River: A nice family story runs through it

I'm writing this on Monday. Now, Mondays scare some people. They get the heebie jeebies on a Sunday night just thinking about it. That's why a lot of Sunday-night TV is a comfort blanket of stuff to reassure viewers that everything is peachy in the world.

Others are scared by getting older. Increasingly, it's a reasonable fear. It seems we'll all end up as working seventysomethings and dropping like flies before we see a penny of the pensions we paid into. Apparently when somebody told Our Glorious Leader about the cost of pensions, he screamed like a banshee and ran away to Switzerland in fright.

Some people are scared by spiders. Or birds. Or ghosts and goblins. The brother is known to be afraid of soup. Go figure. I read the other day that 19.2 million adult Americans have specific phobias. The dark, creepy-crawlies, that kind of thing. And if TV coverage of the Republican primaries is any guide, millions more are terrified of health care, public transport and people who speak French. Again, go figure.

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The River (ABC, CTV, 9 p.m.) is promoted as being totally terrifying. You are told that you'll be on the edge of your seat, white-knuckled, and then possibly run from the room bawling for your mom. From the ads it's pretty clear that some mysterious thingy that goes "whoooooosh!" will terrify you.

Not so. The show is no such thing. It's really about a nice family that needs some healing. It's about mom, dad and the kids being united as a happy family. Now, there's always the possibility that some viewers are terrified by shows about nice happy families. If that's the case, be forewarned.

Anyhoo, here's the gist of the story: A famous TV explorer, Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood), goes missing on the Amazon while filming a show called The Undiscovered Country, and his family wants to find him. Usually Emmet took the family along on his travels but this time he didn't. He's presumed dead when a signal from his missing boat is detected. His wife Tess (Leslie Hope) agrees to participate in a search as part of a documentary about the missing husband. Emmet's son Lincoln (Joe Anderson) reluctantly tags along too. Later, the daughter of Emmet's missing cameraman turns up to join the search.

You will not be surprised to learn that in the way of gormless network TV shows, it's darn clear that everybody keeps a secret and hides an agenda.

What we get in The River is a show within a show. Often what we're watching is either footage from Emmet's TV show or footage from the documentary being made about the search for Emmet. This is meant to explain all the jerky camera work and choppy editing. We also get unsubtle commentary about television. "I'm the cameraman. I don't save people!" one character barks. Yeah. Take that, Reality TV. In our face.

Moving along, Emmet's boat is located and weirdness ensues. Nature, it is revealed, is both lovely and threatening. The viewer reels, no doubt. Next thing you know, there's some badass force upsetting people by making "whoooosh" noises accompanied by a throbbing beat on the soundtrack. Some characters stand around and talk about "the thing," "the ghost," "the soul," "an angry soul" and before you can shout at the screen, "it's a hobgoblin, a hobgoblin, I tell you!" somebody else is yakking in about "a shaman." Jiminy, do ya think there's something mystical going on, or what?

Early in The River we are shown clips from Emmet's famous and family-friendly TV show. His catchphrase was "There's magic out there!" At the end, a certain person in his family says, wait for it, "There's magic out there!" On this basis we are meant to tune in for all eight episodes.

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What's odd about The River is that there is scariness in the premise, but not in the execution. The blame can be put on one Steven Spielberg.

The show was created by Oren Peli, the writer-director of the indie movie Paranormal Activity, which was genuinely chilling, done in a more authentic verité style than The River, and grossed almost $200-million (U.S.) worldwide. He pitched the idea for this TV series and Spielberg liked it and backed it. ( The River is made by Spielberg's production company.) In interviews, Peli has spoken about Spielberg's enthusiasm – "At one point, he says, 'You know, we should really do a TV show together. There's nothing like this, something very raw and visceral, on TV. Let's figure out how to bring the horror nature of Paranormal Activity to TV.' "

And there's the rub. Almost every Spielberg production is about a family and family unity. In his movies Spielberg is obsessed with uniting families and creating the idyllic dynamics of the perfect American home. Starting with Sugarland Express in 1974 – the story of a couple who lost custody of their child while in prison and want him back – so many Spielberg films are about the glory of family and the urge to create, re-create or heal a solid family unit.

Thus The River is neither scary nor macabre in any way. It might best be re-titled Finding Dad.

Check local listings.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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