Television

Emergence Episode 1: Pilot-Recap and Review-The Cast Will Keep You Hooked

A promising pilot shows strong performance as a talented ensemble cast gives us a problem to solve and people we care about.

Courtesy of ABC

ABC has both the best and worst history with science fiction shows. The network that brought us Lost also brought us Whispers and a quick to get yanked The Crossing. Since Lost first aired and the where did Oceanic Flight 815 really go pandemonium began, every network has clamored to produce the next great mystery-box show. Most are not even close to being successful. NBC may have a hit with Manifest making its sophomore debut later this year but otherwise, streaming services have been more successful. Audiences are inpatient and need something to either develop fast or be binge-able.

A final option is the lightning in the bottle approach of a puzzle that is so intricate and characters so compelling, viewers will tune in week after week when Prime TV fatigue claims so many other shows.  Lost came at a time before Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime had hit their stride(or even existed in some cases), and led with a crew of castaways that were complex and worth caring about. The mystery had us hooked because we wanted to know how John Locke was now walking and whether Hurley’s omniscience would save the day somehow. Science fiction at its best is a morality play. JJ Abrams understood that and it seems Showrunners Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas do too.

Only one episode in and questions remain about Emergence’s long term ability to hook an audience. What is not in question is the complexity of its characters. When NBC passed on this show and ABC snatched it up, the conversation, quickly turned to snagging the right cast to bolster the hard sell of a genre slow burner. Allison Tolman is part of that smart casting. Her likable average gal persona served her well in Fargo and will be very effective as Chief Jo Evans. She has made a living playing average, and in her hands average is extraordinary.

She is smart, compassionate, and in a word, normal.  She makes decisions that aren’t just formulaic necessities but keenly thought out conclusions that are the moral choice as opposed to a foregone conclusion to give other characters something to do. That’s a common problem with mystery-box shows. In an effort to disperse clues or get to the action main players do stupid things with little to no motivation. In Jo’s case, she takes Piper into her own home not because she is some sad lonely childless mother, but because she is a mother and a cop and feels the burden to protect and serve her young charge. We see ourselves in her and that will help keep the viewers engaged even in the frustration of a sci-fi puzzle show that may also be a little This Is Us

Enigma Piper(Alexa Swinton) is both vulnerable and as events play out possibly catastrophically powerful. Ex-husband Alex(Donald Faison) has one of the most infectious smiles on television, and live-in father Ed(Clancy Brown) is a sage grounding presence. Jo’s daughter Bree(Ashley Aufderheide) is a sweet, snarky teenager who cares a great deal for her family. These people feel like our neighbors.  Jo and Alex are divorced but calmly and at times affectionately relate to each other. Jo is not an alcoholic hot mess when not investigating something. Her co-workers respect her and there is not even a whiff of the obligatory problem with women in power trope.

Bree is well-adjusted and even Piper our little girl lost, is neither ridiculously self-aware, hyper-smart, or precocious. She just is a scared, confused little girl looking for answers, until she isn’t. If Swinton had played Piper with a touch more or less authenticity it would have been unbelievable. As it was, her performance sets up a reveal that is chilling.

Between the plane crash, fake NTSB(National Transportation Safety Board) officers, power and cell outages, and slanting rain it is clear Piper has a secret. Magnetic field disruptions can cause all of the above, even water flow. Can Piper control magnetic fields? Does she harness that power when unleashing her special skills? Is she something other than human? A human nanobot, an alien, a clone? After finding Piper alone near the crash site that took out electricity in the town(even though the plane crashed well after the power went out) one group of bad guys after another try to get their hands on her. Preternaturally cogent comments are made to Grandpa about his cancer meds which leads to even more questions about just how plugged in Piper is. Fractal patterns appearing as strange QR codes on the television while around her don’t help explain her backstory. With the help of her family and Benny(Owain Yeoman) Jo will strive to keep one step ahead of the danger looming. Piper’s ability to escape crashes unscathed will come in handy in that endeavor.

In one of the coolest and most surprising ending scenes Piper has a flashback to a bright, lab setting and a possible immersion tank. Even more arresting than the impressive car flip seen a thousand times in the promos is the calculated introspection of the girl who may not be entirely innocent.  As she calmly carved out a glowing computer chip from behind her ear, cleaned up the mess, and hid the evidence, there is no doubt she is running from the devil and knows exactly what Hell looks like. How much of her memory is really lost is just one of many intriguing questions?

The pilot episode begins with a mysterious crash that propels the town into the forefront of a major conspiracy. Plane crashes in other series have been good jumping off points. If Emergence can create even a smidgen of the mythos that surrounds Lost or the heart that drove Parenthood it will have a series that may be able to transcend cheap schlocky fair that has been the rule more than the exception. 

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