The Uneasy Environmentalism of ‘The River’

If you’re going to pick someone to go missing and be need of rescue, can you do better than Bruce Greenwood? The veteran actor was a trouper while facing torture by mind control slug in the last Star Trek movie, and as vanished Amazonian explorer Dr. Emmet Cole in The River it’s easy to sympathize with the family that doesn’t want to give up on him. I generally liked the rest of The River, ABC’s new horror show about Cole’s disappearance and the team of reality television producers and scientists who teams up to return to the Amazon to find him, that premiered last night, too. Horror isn’t necessarily my favorite genre, but considerations of environmentalism and the ethics of reality television definitely are.

I appreciate that the show isn’t shy about about connecting Cole’s affection to the wild to a political worldview. “He was a passionate environmentalist,” one of the people eulogizing him says in news reports of his disappearance. But the show isn’t entirely clear on its relationship to that worldview. Cole’s explorations got him killed, or at least disappeared, and it’s clear that the time he sacrificed to his explorations that he could have spent with his family has left his son Lincoln with mixed feelings about the wilderness his father loved. “He missed my life to inspire a billion people I could give a shit about. There’s no magic out there,” he tells his mother. And later, he tells Lena, the daughter of another explorer who’s gone missing with Emmet, that “Science isn’t a great big wonder anymore. Discoveries are made in the lab, not the jungle.” It’s a perspective that downplays preserving the wild and focuses instead on the importance of human ingenuity and industry. But rather than just letting that statement sit, Lincoln gets pulled back into the jungle as his father sees it. Flooded by dragonflies, he admits to Lena, “Okay, that was pretty cool.”

That same canniness is present in the show’s examination of the ethics of reality television. Tess, Emmet’s wife and Lincoln’s mother, first shows up as the love of Emmet’s life. When we next see her, she’s meeting Lincoln in a bar, bringing cameras in to film her conversation with her grieving son who believes he’s just buried his father, telling him “They won’t pay if you won’t go.” Her behavior’s repulsive, but it’s also driven by need rather than pure greed: this is the way she can finance the search for her missing husband. Lincoln is surly around the crew once they’re on the river. “So Lincoln, tell us about your relationship with your father,” a producer asks him, only to get the entirely appropriate response of “Go fuck yourself.” (A side note, I appreciate that the characters are swearing like they would if they were real humans under stressful situations.) But by the end of the show, Lincoln’s playing along. After a touching, and theoretically private, moment between Tess and Lincoln, she points out that there’s a camera watching them—but he knows. She may be using him to get back to the river, but Lincoln has an agenda of his own.

There’s been a lot of conversation about reality television as horror show, especially in the wake of Russell Armstrong’s suicide. But things like The River and The Hunger Games are upping the stakes and trying to find a limit to what we’d let ourselves be entertained by—and what people will do to entertain us.