Tuesday, January 30, 2018

REVIEW. The River on 1Magic is a meshed jumble of Jacob's Cross 2.0 and Isidingo 2.0 with a black 'Cherel de Villiers Haines', and scenic aerial drone shots.

The new telenovela The River for M-Net's rebranded 1Magic (DStv 103) channel that started on Monday for DStv Premium subscribers is a patchwork of stories and styles you've likely seen or had a passing interest in before - a somewhat overwrought mesh, borrowing from where parts of some other TV soaps have gone before.

Way overacting, Sindi Dlathu, hyping up the histrionics in interior shots but completely flat in exterior shots filmed on location, is channeling a black Cherel de Villiers Haines mining boss character (who also killed - and hid a body in a mine shaft in Isidingo - and who also grew up poor and abused but rose to rule thanks to ruthless ambition).

Once again South African viewers are fed the stale TV trope that a successful business woman surely must be evil and surely couldn't have attained what she did on her own by simply being good and good-natured.

It's interesting that Hlomla Dandala formerly from Jacob's Cross on M-Net and Africa Magic, and Don Mlangeni Nawa formerly from Isidingo on SABC3, both show up in roles.

The River, produced by Tshedza Pictures, comes across as a mash-up of Jacob's Cross 2.0 and Isidingo 2.0 so the presence of both of these actors serve intentionally or unintentionally as visual reminders and touchstones of the soapy dramas and roles they've been seen in before.

Nothing in The River except for visual scene setting aerial drone shots (that are done well) feels new.

Yet again a mining drama. Yet again rich people who are bad. Yet again a rich family unaware of the evil actions of the boss parent and spouse. Yet again poor people part of a mining community who are naive and being exploited.

Keep in mind that The River (the opening title sequence looks like M-Net's Egoli 2.0) is made for DStv Premium subscribers - an audience that already has access to the avalanche of multiple weekday soaps and telenovelas across the SABC's channels, as well as e.tv's new generation of stylised local prime time telenovelas.

The question then becomes why this upscale audience would watch yet another poor vs rich, mining community framed drama (complete with some traces of Skeem Saam angst).

The River - and this review is based on having viewed the first broadcast episode only, and yes, stories often take longer than the establishing episode to set up plot points - doesn't seem to have any themes that haven't been explored in other local soaps before.

In the first 24 minutes a woman is buried alive, another woman shoots and (presumably) kills herself, and a man is hit with a brick on his head from behind and drowned.

 It's too much violence for an opening episode and literally hitting the viewer over the head with trying to show how "faux brutal" it can be. What (shock value) will be left for later?

The episode's set piece - the cold open of a massive mining front-end loader advancing on a woman and burying her under a load of dirt - is effective, but it also looks quite fake due to how it was filmed.

The suicide that follows a few minutes later comes across as emotionally hollow since the viewer feels nothing for the character - and can't: there's been no time to get to know the character and have an emotional response because you don't (yet) care.

Lunga Shabalala's acting stuck out as really bad. Maybe it's just the Lindani role and he might not be a bad actor per se, but he should possibly just stick to plain TV presenting roles.

In terms of screen time the first episode of The River is very Sindi Dlathu heavy, and yes, it is a soap, but the portrayal of Lindiwe as a Cherel-on-steroids type character is way too overly dramatic - from tears to chasing men out of a boardroom and a far too over the top "lets make sure this person is really dead" scene on a river's edge.

Too may fake things kept taking me out of the story, from a dad's wholly unrealistic conversation with his son, someone clearly sipping from an empty cup, a non-diamond looking rough diamond with the appearance of a Star Trek crystal, and a mine workers revolt filmed in close-up scenes to unsuccessfully try and hide that there are only 15 extras supposed to represent a whole mining company.

After a Miriam-hiding-Moses type flashback and other unfulfilled agreements it felt as if the generically entitled The River as a telenovela would have been better as Broken Hearts or Broken Promises maybe? Who knows.

With an glut and oversupply of similar shows for South African viewers, The River feels too generic. There's really nothing that makes it stand out as must-see, novel and compelling viewing - yet another new washing powder brand in a long aisle of TV laundry detergents promising more, but basically delivering the same as the existing ones, with the same ingredients.

It's good that it exists - at the very least it's work and experience for the local TV industry. But groundbreaking, refreshing and genre expanding The River is not.

■ M-Net didn't make The River on 1Magic available beforehand for review purposes and this review is based on watching the first episode only, and as a linear broadcast episode on Monday night.

editor's note: This review was updated on Wednesday 31 January 2018 by correcting a spelling mistake and changing the spelling of Sindi Dlathu's name to the correct "Sindi" from "Sindy".