Joe Anderson

If the notion of getting "Lost in the Amazon" and finding yourself in a weekly horror movie has any appeal, then by all means set your compass for ABC's The River, the most exciting thing to happen to TV's midseason since, well, Monday's premiere of Smash on NBC. If Smash is a show-stopper, The River is a terrifying heart-stopper, a cleverly cinematic supernatural adventure that takes us on a wild ride into an exotic heart of darkness. (It opens with back-to-back episodes Tuesday at 9/8c, and the second hour is even scarier than the first.)

As a lifelong horror fan, I devoured the first five (of eight) episodes of The River, which exceeded my expectations as it embarks on a treacherous quest where every day's a mayday and the nights are even worse. If you're familiar with the work of executive producer Oren Peli (Paranormal Activity), you know to fear most those moments when everyone's at rest and the ever-watchful cameras go into time-lapse mode, revealing things no one else can or would want to see. Likewise, the narrative wastes no time taking us into places we'd never dare venture.

The River is framed as a mock-docu-reality show, following a crew of family members and colleagues searching for a famous TV naturalist (Bruce Greenwood) who went missing on the Amazon six months earlier, in a boat tricked out with cameras like a floating studio. When his beacon goes off triggering a renewed manhunt, they find the boat, but not the man, whose catchphrase is "There's magic out there." Dark magic anyway, because at every step, be it in water or jungle or forbidding cave, there are mystical dangers of primitive legend awaiting them, none spookier than in tonight's second hour, when they encounter a "spirit tree" of macabre dangling dolls that they actually choose to make camp under. Bad idea!

Part of the show's unnerving fun is that everyone knows they're always being watched — not just by vengeful spirits, but by TV cameras. They're all part of a show, though no one can predict how this story will turn out, or who'll survive for a (hopeful) second season. Paul Blackthorne, having a ball as the manipulative TV producer who'd like to think he's in control, confronts an adversary by noting, "I don't mind a good 'Every Man For Himself' villain on board. It makes for excellent television."

And really, isn't that what it's all about? The River is excellent television, and unlike last year's laughable American Horror Story, it's truly horrific.

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SHOWDOWN IN THE HOLLER:
This season of FX's Justified just keeps getting better, masterfully juggling violent suspense and the drollest of humor, with things coming to a head tonight (10/9c) when "Dumb & Dumber" duo Dickie Bennett and Dewey Crowe are busted out of prison in one of the most tragicomically chaotic capers in recent memory. The ultimate target: a fortune in cash allegedly left behind by Dickie's late (and much lamented) mother Mags, stashed away in Noble's Holler under the care of Ellstin Limehouse. But with U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens sniffing around, things inevitably get complicated, leading to quite the pivotal showdown at Mags' old store — where the betrayed locals have painted "Benedict" over the "Bennett" signage. Meanwhile, Boyd Crowder faces a threat within his own crime organization, when his restless underling Devil hears a tempting proposal from the truly devilish Mr. Quarles (Neal McDonough, who metaphorically kills in his big scene of evangelical fervor). You don't want to miss this episode, so if you find yourself glued to The River's second hour, which I predict you will be, be sure and record this for later — or on one of the later replays.

Also demanding attention in one of the week's most overcrowded hours (Tuesday at 10/9c) is TNT's Southland, TV's most realistic police drama, which focuses tonight on Det. Lydia Adams, played with a still-waters-run-deep intensity by Regina King. As Adams contemplates a life-changing situation on the home front, a murder case puts her in direct contact with the life force of a desperately protective mother (Lisa Gay Hamilton, who's terrific). Compassion on the job is the order of business during another tumultuous day on L.A.'s unforgiving streets, as Officer Bryant (Shawn Hatosy) tends to a dog accidentally shot during a takedown, and Officer Tang (a very impressive Lucy Liu) hits several brick walls of bureaucracy — but never stops firing back — while trying to secure an ID for a homeless ex-Marine. As the vignettes veer from the banal to the heartbreaking, Southland dramatizes a daily tour of duty that's as grueling as it is quietly gripping.

CHANNEL SURFING: Not available for review, but sure to earn the night's biggest ratings, CBS smash NCIS celebrates its landmark 200th episode (8/7c) with Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon) reacting to a life-or-death situation by flashing, It's a Wonderful Life-style, to alternate-reality versions of his, and his team's, past and present. Hope it works better than Grey's Anatomy's "what if" episode last week. ... It's "La Vida Loco" on Fox's Glee (8/7c), as Ricky Martin guests as a night-school Spanish teacher. ... Comedy veteran Jane Curtin joins CBS' Unforgettable (10/9c) as an unorthodox medical examiner in an episode that finds a serial killer taunting the usually unflappable Carrie. ... Hilarie Burton finally returns to USA Network's White Collar, teaming with Neal (Matt Bomer) on the case of a missing Stradivarius. Debra Monk and Tom Skerritt guest as Elizabeth's mom and dad, arriving for her birthday. ... Meredith Baxter shows up on ABC's Switched at Birth (8/7c) as Kathryn's mom, finally meeting her biological granddaughter Daphne for the first time. And won't that be awkward?

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