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Emergence pilot (1).png

'Emergence' Review: The Real Mystery Is Whether The Show Can Live Up To Allison Tolman

By Tori Preston | TV | September 25, 2019 |

By Tori Preston | TV | September 25, 2019 |

Emergence pilot (1).png

ABC’s got a shiny new mystery on its hands, and while the pilot didn’t offer much to go on just yet, it kind of didn’t need to. Wanna know why you should give Emergence a shot? I can boil it down to two reasons. First off, it’s created by Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas, the duo behind Reaper, Kevin (Probably) Saves The World, and — ahem — Agent Carter. They have a knack for injecting real humor and heart into shows that could easily be mediocre genre fare. Secondly, it stars Allison Tolman, the actor who single-handedly stole the first season of Fargo straight out from under the likes of Martin Freeman, Billy Bob Thornton, Bob Odenkirk, Jordan Peele AND Keegan-Michael Key, only to wind up being wasted in supporting roles or in cancelled shows (RIP Downward Dog) in the years since. Remember how she played Melanie Lynskey’s sister in Castle Rock? She did! According to IMDb, her character’s name was, uh, “Molly’s Sister.” Point is, Emergence could be a Chuck Lorre sitcom and I’d still be tuning in just to see Tolman on my TV once again. So for me, the real mystery is whether this show will prove to be the kind of platform Tolman deserves — and so far, I’m hopeful!

Tolman plays Jo, a police chief working in a cute coastal town on Long Island’s Peconic Bay. She’s called to the scene of a mysterious plane crash in the middle of the night, only to discover a mysterious young girl hiding nearby. You know what? Just mentally add the word “mysterious” to everything I’m going to describe from here on out. The show isn’t quite as in-your-face as Lost, and I doubt we’ll ever get a scene underscored with that “BWAAAAAA” sound effect, but there is a lingering sense of unease that will make you doubt basically every person on screen aside from Jo. Sudden blackouts, rain that flows sideways, metal objects being pushed and pulled by random magnetic forces, television static that looks like computer chips — everything is weird and nothing is what it seems, for vague as-yet-unidentified reasons!

The girl, played by Alexa Swinton, appears to have amnesia, and it’s not even clear if she was involved in the crash or what (she absolutely was, duh). It also quickly becomes apparent that there is a shady organization looking for her. They pretend to be agents from the National Transportation Safety Board in order to cover up the crash, and later send a couple of imposters to the police station claiming to be the girl’s parents (they absolutely aren’t, duh). There’s also an investigative reporter named Benny (Owain Yeoman) sniffing around, who correctly predicts almost every move this organization is going to make. Jo, quickly deducing that Something Fishy Is Going On, decides to take the girl home with her rather than putting her in the system for state care from the outset, making it harder for whatever this conspiracy is to track her down. Unfortunately, it also puts her family at risk.

That family is probably the secret weapon of the whole show. Jo is a single mother, navigating a very recent separation from her husband Alex (Donald Faison) in order to keep things as healthy and stable as possible for their teenage daughter, Mia (Ashley Aufderheide). They’ve already got Mia a therapist to help her process her feelings about this change in the family dynamic, and while we don’t yet know why Jo and Alex have split, it’s clear that there is still a lot of affection between them. Mia, for her part, takes an immediate shine to the little girl and goes out of her way to make her feel welcome, even helping her come up with a name (“Piper”) to go by until she can remember her own. Also helping Jo out at home is her father Ed, played by omnipresent MVP of everything, Clancy Brown. Now, here’s the problem: Brown has a track record of popping up where you least expect him, and then very quickly getting killed off (looking at you, Sleepy Hollow). Things aren’t looking good for him in this show, either. Ed is a former fireman who is currently battling cancer, and while he seems to be in recovery, Piper takes one look at him popping his daily pills and eerily informs him that they aren’t working. So, I’m trying not to get overly attached to Ed, but since I’m always overly attached to Clancy Brown being in stuff, it’s a little tricky. Setting his odds for survival aside, Emergence has quickly established that Jo has a strong support system (and a lot at stake) by sidestepping easy drama in favor of nuance, and more importantly — this is a family that Piper herself wants to be a part of.

For most of the pilot, Emergence comes off as fairly predictable girl-on-the-run story. It’s clear that a lot of the strange phenomena are caused by Piper herself, usually when she’s in a heightened state of fear or panic. It’s likely that she caused the plane crash, as well as a later car crash that she similarly emerges from unscathed (the car seems to collide with literally nothing, crunching up and flipping over in the middle of the road). It’s also likely that she may not be as innocent as she appears. In the final moments of the episode, Piper seems to have some sort of flashback (to a sensory deprivation chamber, or some kind of water torture?), proving she hasn’t lost all her memories. Then the girl picks up a box cutter and SLICES OPEN HER NECK TO REMOVE A TRACKING CHIP. So clearly she, uh, also remembered where she’d been tagged with a tracking chip? Point is, Piper knows a whole lot more than she’s letting on — and Jo has already staked her career and her family’s safety on keeping this little girl safe.

So, are we dealing with a mutant? A government super-soldier project? Could Butters and Fazekas be introducing a backdoor Marvel show onto ABC (unlikely, but a girl can dream). Is the overarching mystery going to keep us guessing like Lost, or land with a Manifest-sized thump? It’s too early to tell. I have no reason to doubt that Butters and Fazekas have something fun and unexpected up their sleeves for this show, and even if they didn’t, I’d settle for watching Tolman read a phonebook for 22 episodes if I had to.

Just please, let Clancy live!

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Tori Preston is deputy editor of Pajiba. She rarely tweets here but she promises she reads all the submissions for the "Ask Pajiba (Almost) Anything" column at [email protected]. You can also listen to her weekly TV podcast, Podjiba

Header Image Source: ABC