'Emergence': TV Review

Not a gripping mystery, but boosted by a likable main cast.
9/24/2019

ABC's latest attempt to find a genre hit in the 'Lost' space features a terrific Allison Tolman, plus the impressive Alexa Swinton as a little girl with secrets.

As we justifiably honor the 15th anniversary of ABC's Lost premiere, no ceremony is complete without a vigil for those sons of Lost, mythology-driven genre pieces that ABC scheduled, promoted and canceled.

FlashForward. InvasionResurrection. The River. The Whispers. The Crossing.

Depending on the flexibility of your definition, this litany could include No Ordinary Family, Night Stalker, V, Kevin (Probably) Saves the World and several others.

Some got off to promising starts. Heck, Resurrection and V even got second seasons. Some had devoted fan bases. None reached an end that satisfied those fans. Yet ABC has kept trying, an aspiration stretching across multiple entertainment presidents and countless development regimes.

It serves no purpose to pretend that the new ABC drama Emergence is not a successor to this string of failures. Creators Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters previously worked on Resurrection and created Kevin (Probably) Saves the World and they may have thought they escaped this hamster wheel when Emergence was originally developed at NBC, only to have it migrate over to ABC like water finding its level.

It's with tempered pleasure that I can report the pilot for Emergence is well above average by Lost spawn standards. It sets a mood well, doesn't abuse its mysterious trappings and is carried by a thoroughly charming cast. Of course, pilots haven't necessarily been the problem for the ABC shows in this space and ABC hasn't been able to provide any subsequent Emergence episodes, so it's hard for me to assess whether even the most casual of investments will be rewarded.

One failing consistent to many of these ABC duds has been needless initial complication and if I were to list my favorite thing about Emergence, it's that it's atypically clean, narratively. Allison Tolman plays Jo, police chief in a midsize Long Island town. Newly divorced from Alex (Donald Faison), Jo lives with her former firefighter father Ed (Clancy Brown) and her daughter (Ashley Aufderheide). One night, the power goes out and Jo is summoned to the site of what appears to be a midsize plane crash, where she also discovers a young girl (Alexa Swinton) suffering from some sort of amnesia. Jo takes the girl in and it very quickly becomes clear that she's no ordinary girl and this was no ordinary plane crash.

No duh, right?

It's here that most insecure shows would layer in obligatory place-holder conflict to keep things tense while the mythology wheels are spinning. Maybe Jo is hooked on opioids? Maybe Jo was a controversial choice as police chief and she's being undermined by fellow officers and local politicians? Maybe the ex-husband is threatening and abusive? Maybe the daughter is rebellious and prone to cougar attacks? Maybe Jo's father is a werewolf?

Maybe some of that stuff will come along in upcoming weeks. I can't say for sure. But I know that in the short term, a great joy is that the show's core family is nicely and pleasantly functional. Jo and Alex may have separated, but they have a great and winning affection. Their daughter isn't acting out and the temporary addition of a new "sister" to the family doesn't cause her untoward jealousy. Ed has cancer and isn't in the best of shape, but he has been, to all appearances, a loving father and grandfather.

The primary result is that this is a family I might actually want to spend 42 minutes a week with. They relate to each other in likable and affectionate ways and Faison, Brown and Aufderheide are agreeably at ease for a show whose premise will eventually demand that everything go haywire.

This leaves room for Jo to be smart and capable on her own as she begins to explore the show's various puzzles and makes it easy to understand why people would trust her and respond to her with respect and warmth. She's not a TV Vocational Irony Narrative heroine — capable at work, but a mess at home or vice versa. Boosted by associations with a similar and similarly strong turn in the first season of Fargo — swap in Clancy Brown in Keith Carradine — Tolman settles effortlessly into the role. "Effortless," or the complicated illusion thereof, is what Tolman does best and her interactions with the enigmatic new stranger in her life play out with similar ease, boosted by Swinton's not-too-precocious performance in a role I have to assume was difficult to cast.

Even pilot director Paul McGuigan is in unexpectedly subtle mode. The Sherlock and Scandal director is prone to minor visual pyrotechnics and attention-grabbing editing. Here, he responds to the understated script with simple visual storytelling, never forcing viewers to be needlessly conscious of the oddness of the situation. McGuigan saves all of his flash for a final scene that's probably my favorite in any broadcast pilot this fall, a creepy moment that could have fallen apart if Swinton's performance were even an iota more self-aware.

I don't exactly care what the "solution" or "twist" is in Emergence. ABC probably trained me not to when the original pilot for The Whispers made it clear that its twist involved aliens and then that specificity was trimmed from the pilot that aired and viewers were strung along pointlessly before cancellation. Instead, I somewhat care about the main characters, which I don't think I've felt about an ABC sci-fi series since Lost. We'll see how long that lasts.

Cast: Allison Tolman, Alex Swinton, Ashley Aufderheide, Clancy Brown, Donald Faison, Owain Yeoman, Robert Bailey Jr., Zabryna Guevara

Creators: Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas

Airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on ABC starting Sept. 24.