Emergence is my favorite of the four new dramas I watched this week (also Prodigal Son, Stumptown and Evil). It has a compelling mystery with its own twist, characters I already care about who aren’t dark and cynical and a diverse, gender-balanced cast.
I really like the philosophy the show exhibited in the pilot. It’s not overly sweet or dark, but there’s a certain warmth and optimism. I get the sense that Piper is the main clue to a larger mystery, not a unique magical child who’s meant to save the world by herself. Hopefully the characters and mystery plot will stay in the forefront, while shoot outs and gore will be kept to a minimum.
And I love this new mother-daughter team of soft-hearted, unlikely bad*sses, who are part of a family of flawed but caring people. Real moms with good judgement for the win. I was so proud of Jo for being the one with the gun who could protect her family when an intruder broke into their beachhouse, but also for getting the family out without firing a shot. She put the safety of her family and solving crimes and mysteries first, as she should.
Emergence begins late at night in the sleepy Long Island, NY town of Southold, when there’s a town-wide power outage at the same time that a plane crashes on the beach. Police chief Jo Evans (Allison Tolman) is awakened by the outage. She and her family go outside to see what’s going on and notice an ionized glow, similar to the Aurora Borealis, rising from the site of the plane crash. Jo gets a call about the crash and says she’ll be right there. She tells her young teen daughter, Mia (Ashley Aufderheide), and her father, Ed Sawyer (Clancy Brown), that she’s leaving and sends them back to bed.
The beach surrounding the plane is crowded with first responders. Jo is met by Officer Chris Minetto (Robert Bailey Jr.), who explains that it was a mid size private jet that held about ten people. So far they haven’t been able to identify the flight or the source of the power and cell phone outage. Jo tells Chris to set up a perimeter and canvas for witnesses.
With the situation under control, she walks back toward her car, but sees someone duck down behind a small sand dune out of the way of action on the beach. Jo uses a flashlight to check behind the dune and finds a young girl (Alexa Swinton) hiding. The girl won’t talk to Jo, so she tries to connect to her through the Toy Story t-shirt the girl is wearing, explaining that she’s a sheriff, like Woody. Officer Chris comes over to check on the situation and the girl jumps into Jo’s arms. Jo gives the girl her police jacket to keep her warm on the windy beach.
Jo asks for paramedics to check on the girl, but she won’t let go of Jo. Chris agrees to continue to handle the crash site and the NTSB, who have just arrived and want the site cleared out, while Jo deals with the mysterious girl.
Once the girl has been examined at the hospital, Jo’s friend Dr Abby Frasier (Zabryna Guevara) explains that she’s fine physically but doesn’t remember anything. Abby thinks the girl has dissociative amnesia, caused by the brain’s need to protect itself after trauma. Abby doesn’t think the girl was in the plane crash, since she doesn’t have any injuries, but she doesn’t know what the trauma might have been. She hopes the girl’s memory will return in a day or two.
The girl is feeling fine now and wants to go home with Jo. Abby suggests that Jo stay in the hospital with her until she falls asleep instead. Jo shares a box of candy and a guessing game with her first.
Jo goes into the hall to investigate when they hear Abby having a loud argument. Three men who say they’re from the NTSB have arrived to take the girl and her files. They jumped to making threats as soon as Abby hesitated. Jo points out that they don’t have the authority to arrest anyone, but she does.
Abby discovers that during the argument the girl has done missing from her room, so Jo sends out everyone she can spare to search everywhere the girl could be. Then Chris calls to tell her that the real NTSB has arrived at the crash site. The other guys were impersonating the government agency.
It begins pouring rain outside. Jo sees a black SUV drive away from the hospital, so she rushes out to her police truck to follow them. For a moment, her car won’t start, then the rain runs sideways across her windshield. There’s a flash and crackle in the truck, and it starts running on its own. Also, the girl is now in the truck. She says, “Don’t be mad.”
Did she just transport into the truck or did we not notice her there in the dark?
Ed is still up when Jo and the girl get back to the house. When Jo tells him he shouldn’t have waited up, Ed says that he doesn’t sleep. She gets her visitor settled into bed, then fills her dad in on her night. Ed pushes Jo to report the girl to Family Services, but Jo thinks it’s too big a risk with the fake NTSB looking for her. He tells her she did the right thing by keeping the girl safe tonight and they can figure out the rest in the morning.
Yay for supportive dads.
In the morning, Jo comes down to the kitchen to find that Mia and the girl are already fast friends. Mia is trying to decide on a name for their visitor, since she can’t remember her real name. Jo suggests Piper, which was her second choice for Mia, so that’s what they choose.
Jo needs to drive Mia to school and check on the crash site, so she asks Ed and Piper if they’ll be okay together at home for a while. Jo and Piper are already having silent mother-daughter conversations and Piper is still wearing Jo’s police chief jacket from the night before. She looks scared for a second, but decides to be brave for her new mom.
Ed is fine with watching the kid, but Jo is worried about his health. He reminds her that the doctor said he should resume normal activities, so he should be able to handle a few chores and babysitting a ten year old. Jo asks him to keep Piper in the house for their own safety.
On the way out the door, Jo thanks Mia for being so good with Piper. Mia says she wants Piper to be her little sister. Now that her parents aren’t together, she thinks it’s the only way she’ll get a sibling.
A sinister black truck drives by the house and slows down to get a good look. They’re already being watched.
Ed counts out his medications for the week into daily pill boxes while Piper watches. He explains that the medications are to treat the cancer he developed due to toxins he was exposed to as a firefighter. He tells Piper that the meds are making him better. She says that they aren’t. He asks if she knows how to install a garbage disposal and they move on to their chores.
One of Piper’s powers must be some kind of scanning ability, maybe something similar to an MRI, since she has electromagnetic abilities.
When Ed goes to the basement for a tool, the TV turns itself on and shows a lined pattern in the center of the screen. Piper walks to the TV and is about to touch it when Ed returns. The pattern disappears and he turns the TV off. He asks Piper to come back to the kitchen. She’s pocketed a boxcutter from his tool box.
Was that an incoming communication from someone else like her? A sign that someone was using the TV to search for her?
The evidence of the plane crash has been completely cleared from the beach and that section has been reopened to the public. Jo is surprised when she arrives, because an investigation into a plane crash would normally take much longer.
The only one on the beach is a reporter named Benny Gallagher (Owain Yeoman) who’s taking photographs. Jo tries to get rid of him. He tries to convince her that they should work together, because he’s seen cases like this before. He predicts that the report will say that the vehicle that crashed was an unmanned drone that was involved in a routine activity like monitoring pollution or mapping forrests.
He tells Jo that he has sources that she doesn’t, so they should share information. For instance, he knows that the plane took off from Plum Island, three miles to the north, which is a Homeland Security research facility.
They say those last four words in unison. They’re obviously meant to do great things together.
He doesn’t have proof for anything he’s told her, so Jo decides to ignore him for now, Benny tells her that law enforcement officers usually really like him. She’ll be back.
Jo gets home a little late that evening. Her ex-husband, Alex (Donald Faison), is already there waiting for her. It’s his weekend with Mia, but she’s decided that it would be too traumatic for Piper if she left now. Mia reminds her parents that all children need security and consistency, and they’ve failed dismally at giving it to her lately, but she’s not going to fail her new little sister. And she brings her therapist’s advice into it.
Alex decides to cooperate, even though he’s a bit miffed because they’ve only had this schedule for two months. They work out an alternative plan, and Mia assumes that Piper will be visiting Alex with her from now on. Ed invites him to stay for dinner, but that’s one step too far. He doesn’t want to rejoin the family. He also disapproves of the way Jo’s unofficially taken in Piper, but there are still sparks between the exes.
Maybe once he finds out he’s got competition from Benny he’ll be more willing to work on their issues. Or maybe Jo needs someone like Benny, who’s more flexible about life.
Later, Piper plays with Mia and Jo’s old dollhouse before bed. They talk about how generous Mia is being with Piper. When Jo asks if Piper has remembered anything about her life, Piper changes the subject. Jo brings it back up and asks if Piper might be afraid of remembering. Piper doesn’t know, but she suggests that she might not ever remember her previous life.
Jo tells Piper about how scary it was when her mom left home forever when Jo was young. Jo held all of her feelings about it inside for a long time, but it didn’t help. She thinks that it helps to talk about scary and sad things because then you know you’re not alone. Piper asks if she can stay with Jo even if she remembers who she is. Jo says Piper won’t get rid of them that easily.
Just as Jo is telling Piper that it’s time to go to sleep, Chris calls to inform her that a couple are at the station who say they’re her parents. Jo goes alone to check them out. Chris says their names are Freddie and Caitlyn Martin. They claim that their daughter Olivia wandered away from their campsite last night.
Jo has Chris bring the Martins each a cup of coffee while she looks over their IDs and listens to their story. She notes that they were camping on a school night. They claim that they didn’t report Olivia missing earlier because they didn’t have cell service.
Mind, it’s been about 18-20 hours. They could have been at the police station by dawn from any campsite on Long Island, so what did they do all day while their ten year old daughter was missing?
Freddie shows Jo his phone to prove that it still doesn’t have reception. Jo asks about the phone’s camera and if she can see their pictures of Olivia. They refuse to show her photos and demand to see their daughter. Jo says something conciliatory and takes their coffee cups to get refills.
She hands the cups to Chris and tells him to run the fingerprints. While she’s talking to him, the lights dim and the Martins escape. Jo calls Alex to ask him to get her dad and the girls and bring them to a secret location. She says to take them to the place where they set the kitchen on fire, to leave his cell phone behind and not to say anything else. He agrees.
They meet up at a beach cabin. Jo brings Alex a burner phone so they can talk without being traced. She tells the family what happened and promises Piper that she’ll keep her safe. Piper promises to try harder to remember, so they can figure out why people are hunting her.
They decide they’ll all sleep in the living room rather than separating. Alex pulls Jo aside to tell her that he’s worried she’s either gotten herself in over her head or she’s paranoid and losing her mind.
Wow, he can leave now. Or as soon as they find somewhere else to sleep tonight. He came through for her when she needed him, but this kind of undermining isn’t worth the trouble.
She gives him a little more information about Piper and the case and he decides he can keep helping her. It seems like the fact that she’s the chief of police ought to be enough for him.
Loud banging sounds indicate they’ve been found. Jo pulls out her gun and searches for the intruder. Whoever it is enters the house upstairs while the family escapes through a basement window. Once they break the window the intruder tries to follow them into the basement by breaking down a locked door. Piper gets scared, causing the electrical and metal tools in the basement go haywire. They shake, fly and operate on their own.
The inanimate objects settle down as soon as the escape route is clear and Piper settles down a little. Outside, she gets separated from the others and grabbed by the intruders. By the time Jo gets outside, the black truck from earlier is driving away with Piper in it. Jo jumps in her own police truck and follows in pursuit. She calls for backup as she drives.
Just as she catches up to the other car, it suddenly flips up into the air as if it hit some obstacle at high speed, then crashes down to the pavement, upside down and with pieces breaking off. It’s kind of a Stranger Things moment. Jo is stunned.
She gets out and slowly approaches the other vehicle, where the driver appears to be dead, but Piper is okay. She crawls out and goes over to Jo, who hugs her and asks how this is possible. Piper says she doesn’t know.
In the morning, Chris tells her that the Martins’ IDs were fake and their fingerprints didn’t match any on file. He offers to run their DNA, but he figures that will also be a dead end.
OMG, it will show they’re aliens though!
He hands Jo a strange card that’s looks like a passkey made out of metal and paper. There’s no circuitry and nothing magnetic on it. He says no one can figure out what it is or what it’s for. The driver was carrying it.
The NTSB checked in to say the plane was an unmanned drone mapping forest coverage for the National Science Foundation. Chris confirms with Jo that they both actually saw a plane on the beach and the NTSB is lying. He asks what she thinks is going on. Jo tells him she thinks it has something to do with Piper, so she’s going to keep the girl with her and out of the system. She asks Chris if he’ll go along with it, even though it’s not legal. He agrees, without hesitation.
Jo meets Benny at a local restaurant. She knew where to find him because she’s been having him followed since they met. She tells him that she wouldn’t normally consider working with him, because she doesn’t know if she can trust him, but right now she doesn’t know who she can trust.
He thinks she’s smart to be cautious about trusting people, and offers up some new information. The fake NTSB agents recovered the black box and human remains from the plane. Jo wonders why he hasn’t published this information. He says he’s waiting until he has the whole story. She gives him the card that was found on the driver who kidnapped Piper and asks him to find out what he can about it. He says he’ll get back to her.
Jo gets home late and finds both girls in her bed. Piper is still wearing her police jacket and still scared. Jo promises that the people who tried to take her are gone. Piper asks if Jo thinks she caused the plane crash. Jo tells her no, she doesn’t think it was Piper’s fault.
Piper totally crashed the plane, but she was forced into it by circumstances, so it’s not her fault.
Jo sends her to the bathroom to brush her teeth with her brand new toothbrush. Piper turns on the water and looks in the mirror, then strange things happen. Reality alters in some way and Piper isn’t quite the same human girl we’ve been watching throughout the episode. She goes through a few filters of different looks before she snaps out of her trance.
There’s a new awareness in her eyes as she feels her skin behind her ear, then reaches for the box cutter she pocketed earlier. She clicks the blade into place, pulls the skin behind her ear taut, then makes a small slice. She gasps in surprise at the sensation when she cuts herself, then gets back to business. She feels inside the cut until she finds a small button sized object that’s lit up with the same pattern that was on the TV that morning. She pulls it out, looks at it, then puts it down the sink drain. Once it’s gone, Piper cleans up the mess she’s made and covers the cut with her long hair, as if nothing happened.
She smiles at herself in the mirror.
It was definitely a tracker. But what else was in that button? Was getting rid of it the equivalent of running away from home or was it part of the plan?
Emergence begins with a series of TV tropes and events we’ve seen before. A plane crashes on a beach, a magical child appears, a family of good people who have drifted apart take her in, and mysterious, relentless pursuers put the magical child and her new family in danger. We’ve seen variations on this theme in shows such as Manifest, The Crossing, Lost, Once Upon a Time, Extant- the list seems endless. It’s a fairy tale scenario that’s deeply embedded in our culture.
Emergence works because it has a talented, charming cast who have effortless chemistry together, the way families in the most emotionally believable shows do. They find the magic in the script and bring it out in their characters, without forcing anything. Most especially, the relationship between the two leads, Police Chief Jo Evans, played by Alison Tolman, and mystery child Piper, played by Alexa Swinton, is warm and heartfelt from the moment the two first meet. In some ways, it doesn’t really matter how the rest of the mystery is solved, as long as Piper is adopted in Jo’s family forever and the two keep working together to solve it.
The success of the family aspect of the show, outside of the mystery aspect, might help save it when it comes to renewal time. At least so far, this show has that sense of kismet between the characters that makes you want to visit with them every week and catch up on their lives, separate from the mystery plot. So far, none of the many one or two and done canceled supernatural shows have managed that.
The pilot barely scratches the surface of Alexa’s real story, so we’ll have to give it a few more episodes before judging whether the scifi aspect is equal to the character aspect of the show.
But Terry O’Quinn shows up in episode 2, and that’s always a good sign.
The two shows this reminds me of the most are Manifest and Extant, both scifi with happy, warm, if slightly broken, families that you want to spend time with even without the science fiction aspect of the shows. Extant had a robot child, an alien pregnancy, an astronaut mom and a robotics scientist dad. I think its issue was that it tried to do too much at once, but it was fun while it lasted. Manifest has a missing and returned plane, and pasengers who manifest supernatural abilities. The magical child has the strongest abilities and is the key to the mystery. It’s not quite as visually interesting and well done as Emergence is and Extant was, but it does have its share of pseudoscience.
(Pause to grieve the dearly departed The Crossing, 2018’s version of this concept. Emergence feels better executed already, if only because it didn’t begin with hundreds of dead bodies on the beach. And it doesn’t start with a wildly traumatized family, the way Manifest did. I’m all for avoiding excessive death and trauma.)
Southold is the kind of picturesque little town that has a lighthouse, where every house could be on a postcard. You know nothing really bad has ever happened there before. It’s just asking for trouble. If it wasn’t an alien child, it would have been great white sharks, or, worse, a Sharknado, so Piper’s actually doing them a favor.
Just before the lights go out in the beginning of the episode, a safety pin on Jo’s nightstand flies over to the wall and the LEDs in her bedside clock make a strange pattern. Was Piper nearby? Did she ride to the crash site with Jo? The big question is, who are the people chasing her? Others of her kind, or people from the Homeland Security research facility who were experimenting on her? Both? Is she powerful enough to take out the lights and cell phones in the entire town by herself?
Images courtesy of ABC.