It’s no secret ABC’s still got a thing for mystery: from FlashForward to Betrayal to The Whispers, ABC’s non-Grey’s Anatomy or Scandal-adjacent series continues to try and find an audience for these types of series, even as other networks have all but given up on trying (remember The Event? Or Wayward Pines?). Emergence, ABC’s latest attempt to harness this particular brand of drama, is the strongest attempt I’ve seen in years, from any network; that’s not to say it is a guaranteed hit, but with a strong cast and a welcome confidence in its central narrative, it certainly has a chance.
Emergence‘s first hour nimbly avoids the common pratfalls so many of its genre counterparts have struggled from.
There will be a lot of critics ready to compare Emergence to LOST; after all, both are ABC properties centered around a mystery (one that just happens to begin on a beach, if we really want to fall down the rabbit hole). But a more apt comparison would actually be Amazon’s recent drama Hanna; “Pilot” presents Emergence as a supernatural-tinged family drama, one that features a strange girl coming to terms with unknown powers, while a shady, probably government-related organization tails after all… while Emergence certainly is an underhanded attempt to revitalize the dramatic brand ABC had during LOST‘s heyday, “Pilot” really feels like a more balanced version of Amazon’s hyped sci-fi drama.
Set in a version of Long Island that looks decidedly nothing like the Long Island I spent my early childhood in, Emergence follows newly-divorced police chief Joanna Evans and her investigation into a strange explosion on the local beach – one where she found a strange young girl – eventually named Piper – uninjured, but (conveniently) unable to remember who she is and where she came from. Tinged by a few supernatural elements (there’s definitely some electromagnetic disturbance somewhere) and the central mystery of the young girl’s identity, Emergence is an attempt to stitch together a handful of different genres, into an intriguing pastiche of mystery, the very kind audiences have mostly rejected from network television in recent years.
Thankfully, “Pilot” has a lot going on for it; led by Alison Tolman’s terrific performance (basically reprising her role from Fargo) as Jo Evans, Emergence‘s first hour nimbly avoids the common pratfalls so many of its genre counterparts have struggled from, striking a balance between building out the central mysteries of the series to follow, and acting as an effective entry point for the story of the Evans family. With a teenage daughter, earnest ex-husband (Scrubs‘ Donald Faison), and slowly regressing father (a very welcome Clancy Brown) to go along with the huge mysteries surrounding Piper, Emergence has a lot on its plate – which makes the balancing act even more impressive as the episode builds to its subtle, evocative final moments.
Tolman’s performance is the bedrock of the series; both writing and performance alike completely avoid the common tropes one would assume inherent to its story. In Jo, Tolman infuses a humanity not often seen with women characters of her ilk; she’s able to effectively manager her family and her job at the same time, able to convey moments of stress without being consumed by then. It also helps everyone in her orbit takes her seriously; from her ex-husband to the young officer under her wing (The Night Shift‘s Robert Bailey Jr.), everyone takes Evans seriously from the word go when she tells them shit ain’t right, which sounds simple, but is actually extremely important to Emergence distinguishing itself from the many series it will be compared to.
That simple touch lends the entire world an aura of credibility; we don’t have to spend entire episodes where the central mystery is “is Jo just hysterical and overwhelmed?” It cuts out that melodramatic, misogynist trope right off the bat – which offers it a wealth of potential and space to build out the other characters of its world. Rather than position its protagonist as potentially unreliable, Emergence is like fuck this, Jo Evans is our Batman, and we’re here to ride with her. It shouldn’t feel like such a radical shift; but it does, a small tweak to the format offering Emergence so much room to grow as the series unfolds.
There are a few underwhelming elements to “Pilot”; the ‘bad boy journalist’ character is laughably unbelievable (nobody who lives on a writer’s income would say the things Benny says in this episode), and the dynamic between Jo and her father feels a little too close to the ol’ Solverson family from Fargo in moments. But these are minor complaints for what ends up being a remarkably strong pilot episode, one that unexpectedly benefits from trying not to think too far outside the box.
As a whole, is is strange just how straightforward the events of Emergence‘s first episode are; by the end of the pilot, the broad strokes of the season to follow are remarkably clear. More importantly, the dynamics between characters lack the unnecessary layers of melodrama so many other series desperately rely on (a great example of this? ABC’s recent Grand Hotel adaptation).Ultimately, this isn’t a flaw of the series; it’s actually refreshing in the way it lays out its puzzle pieces with clarity, even if it seems there isn’t really a whole lot of mystery to it all.
Embodying the archetypes of the multiple genres its hybridizing, in theory, makes for an easy transition into more unique material in the future; it satisfies the network pressure to appeal to a broad audience, but allows Emergence a lot of possibility space to subvert expectations moving forward. Given co-creators Michele Fazekas and Tara Butter’s previous projects (which include, among others, Ressurection, Dollhouse, Reaper, and Kevin (Probably) Saves the World), there’s reason to hope Emergence can live up to this promise – even if it doesn’t, and settles into a wholly by-the-numbers serialized drama, can still be an entertaining, above-average entry in what’s consistently been the most underwhelming sub-genre on the Big Four in recent years.