Emergence Review: A Solid, But Familiar Sci-Fi Enterprise

Allison Tolman brings warmth to an otherwise traditional pilot for ABC’s new sci-fi mystery series.

There’s a lot of heavy lifting to be done in a television pilot, particularly on Network television where a single episode determines whether a show will get the green light to go to series. Often this results in relatively close-ended storytelling with juuuuust enough potential to lure viewers back for subsequent installments.

Emergence, the new show by ABC veterans Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas (RIP Agent Carter), falls very firmly into this format. It is full of familiar narrative beats that are interesting, but hardly original; it has a solid, likable lead actress in Allison Tolman and a supporting cast of recognizable faces (Clancy Brown, Donald Faison); and it has a couple of Network budget-friendly action sequences interspersed among the family melodrama.

Sheriff Jo Evans (Tolman) lives with her father Ed (Brown) and teenage daughter Bree (Ashley Aufderheide) in a small beach town. The action begins immediately with a power blackout, some electromagnetic energy and strange lights in the sky. Jo is called in to investigate a supposed plane crash on the beach and discovers a lone pre-teen girl hiding in the bluffs. After befriending the nearly mute, nameless girl (Alexa Swinton), a trip to the hospital reveals that she is physically unharmed aside from her retrograde amnesia. This means that the girl can’t remember anything, including her name; she eventually dubs herself Piper at Jo’s suggestion.

Suspicious circumstances involving the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) eventually prompt Jo to bring the girl home and hide her – a development that sits well with her cancer-stricken father and friendly daughter, and less so with her estranged husband Alex (Faison). Unsurprisingly there is more to the plane crash, and the parade of shady characters who begin popping up around town in search of the girl, including smarmy reporter Benny Gallagher (Owain Yeoman) who clearly knows more than he is letting on.

None of these plot developments will surprise sci-fi fans, who will find a great deal of familiarity in Emergence’s slight paranoid conspiracies. The pilot does have a few legitimately intriguing moments, such as when Piper is attracted to a static-filled television screen that eventually reveals a strange orange symbol, or when she matter-of-factly states that Ed’s medicine is not curing his cancer. Most promising is the final stinger involving a vision, a box cutter and a trickle of blood that hints at something both nefarious and alien. This tease confirms that there is more to Emergence than the low-stakes that the pilot has set-up and enough story to justify tuning back in.

Kudos should be paid to Fazekas’ script, which refuses to exclusively deliver bombastic otherworldly elements at the expense of the character drama. Yes, there is an action sequence involving a car crash (well-executed, but again, hardly novel), but there are also long stretches dedicated to establish Jo as a daughter and mother, explaining the tense but amicable relationship she has with Alex, and even a few interactions cementing her enviable friendship with her underling, Officer Chris (Robert Bailey Jr).

Even if this isn’t a ground breaking pilot episode by any stretch, Emergence is worth checking out.

Anchoring it all is Tolman, who exudes warmth and generosity. She is equally adept at conveying concern about the girl as she is grilling a pair of suspicious suspects who claim to be the girl’s parents (a key scene that confirms Jo is actually really great at her job). Overall the actress has built up a lot of goodwill in her previous TV work and she is far and away the series’ main draw.

The rest of the cast is all doing fine work, although no one else is given a great deal to do. Brown is reliably gruff and lovable and Faison is as charming as ever, as expected. All of the relationships implicitly work and the time spent exploring how the extended family fits together is helpful considering the series effectively adds an unexpected new member into the mix right off the bat.

As for longevity, there’s certainly enough promise here to entice sci-fi fans to stick around. A few dangling plot threads ensure adequate mystery and the foundational family unit is likable. Of course, there is also the inevitable concern that the mystery won’t justify the time invested or that ABC will pull the plug on the series before it can reveal its secrets (see: Invasion, with its similar family-oriented alien conspiracy dynamic), but for now, Emergence has potential. Even if this isn’t a groundbreaking pilot episode by any stretch, Emergence is worth checking out.

Emergence debuts Tuesday, September 24th at 10pm EST on ABC.

Emergence Trailer:

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