Emergence is ABC’s latest attempt to create a new “puzzle box” mystery thriller in the Lost mold. Strangely, the mystery aspect is the least interesting part of this one.
J.J. Abrams’ name may not be in the credits, but the Lost influence is strong. The series actually comes from Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas, creators of Reaper and Kevin (Probably) Saves the World, as well as producers on Dollhouse, Resurrection, and other shows that play around with sci-fi and/or supernatural themes. They’re clearly staying in their wheelhouse here.
The set-up: One night, the sleepy Long Island town of Southold is disrupted by a brief power blackout and a plane crash on the beach. Police chief Joanna Evans (Allison Tolman) discovers a young girl hiding behind a sand dune near the wreckage. They form an immediate bond. The girl (Alexa Swinton, a distant cousin of Tilda Swinton) has amnesia and doesn’t remember her own name, nor does she know whether she was on the plane. Jo is inclined to assume that she was, except that the girl doesn’t have a scratch on her.
The following morning, thuggish NTSB agents barge into the police station demanding to see the girl. Jo holds them off and the girl knows enough to hide until they leave. No surprise to anyone, it turns out that they weren’t really from the NTSB. Nevertheless, the plane crash is completely cleaned up within hours, as if nothing had happened. Jo finds a reporter named Benny (Owain Yeoman) snooping around the scene. He claims to know where the plane originated from.
Jo brings the girl to her own home, where she and daughter Mia help her to choose a temporary name of Piper until she gets her memory back. Jo’s supportive but cancer-stricken father, Ed (Clancy Brown), helps out babysitting while Jo tries to look into these strange events. When he’s out of the room for a moment, Piper watches the living room TV get scrambled and a weird geometric pattern display on the screen.
Later, a couple claiming to be Piper’s parents turn up at the police station with a story that they were camping and their daughter must have wandered off. Jo quickly susses out that they’re lying when the father can’t produce any photos of his alleged child on his phone. The couple disappear when Jo tries to run their fingerprints. Panicked, she calls her ex-husband Alex (Donald Faison) for help and asks him to bring her father and the kids to the family’s beach cabin.
Jo joins them at the cabin. They aren’t there long before the power goes out and an intruder breaks in through an upstairs window. When Piper gets scared, her fear is accompanied by strange electrical surges and magnetic phenomena. She’s grabbed while trying to escape, and Jo chases the kidnappers in her police cruiser. Before she can catch up, Jo witnesses the bad guys’ vehicle smash into what seems to be an invisible barrier and flip over. The kidnappers are killed in the crash, but Piper miraculously survives, totally unharmed.
Just as Benny the reporter had warned, the plane crash incident is covered up with an obviously false story about being an unmanned drone. Jo tracks down Benny and asks for his help digging into the story. In the meantime, she’ll keep Piper out of the system and care for the girl herself.
The episode ends with Piper alone in Jo’s bathroom. She has a flashback to being submerged in water someplace suffused with a bright white light. Using a box cutter she’d stolen earlier, Piper cuts into her neck and removes a strange-looking computer chip, which she flushes down the sink drain. I guess she does remember a few things after all. What else is she hiding?
Episode Verdict / Grade: B
On a plotting level, Emergence is a mishmash of seemingly dozens of other shows and movies. An unexplained catastrophe, a strange kid with mysterious super powers, a government conspiracy, and so forth… We’ve seen all these things before (including the car crash stunt, which has been done to death at this point), and this isn’t even the most interesting rehashing of them. It’s pretty obvious that Piper is either a space alien or the subject of an unethical government science experiment. I’m not sure that I really care which one it’ll turn out to be.
What does work in the show’s favor, however, are the richly-drawn, very appealing characters across the board. Allison Tolman is a compelling lead (as she was in the first season of Fargo), and her character’s relationships with her father, daughter, and ex-husband are all immediately endearing. Young Alexa Swinton is already an accomplished child actress coming off a recurring role on Starz’s Billions, and she’s great here too, especially when she pulls off that final reveal.
Emergence is no revelation, but it’s entertaining enough that I’ll watch again – primarily for the characters, not the plot.