TV review: ‘Emergence’ is an SF mystery that keeps the surprises coming

  • TV Review
  • Thursday, 23 Jan 2020

‘If you make me open my eyes any wider ... let’s just say you’ll be sorry.’

Emergence, a mystery-thriller with high-tech elements that cross over into the realm of science fiction, is the kind of show where things and people are seldom what or who they seem to be.

For one character, too, reality is often how other people try to define it.

Oddly, phantom episodes kept emerging on Astro during the series’ initial run (my PVR recorded episodes “10” and “11” back in December although the actual episode 10 only aired in the United States on Jan 7; I have screenshots), adding – purely through error, I figure – to the sense of manipulation and illusion Emergence is clearly trying to achieve.

The series comes to us courtesy of Michelle Fazekas and Tara Butters, names that ought to be familiar to veteran viewers; they created, among other shows, the CW comedy Reaper and ABC’s Agent Carter.

Emergence is a puzzle-box show, starting out as one thing and then turning into something quite different.

And it makes such turns more than once in its relatively short (up to now) run.

That starting-out-as-one-thing involves Jo Evans (Allison Tolman, Fargo Season One), a police chief in Long Island’s Peconic Bay, who takes in a young girl found at the scene of a mysterious plane crash.

That girl, who chooses “Piper” as her name since she can’t remember who she is or where she came from, is played by Alexa Swinton (one of the Rhoades children on Billions) with a wide-eyed curiosity.

‘You’re right. I was the handsome, enigmatic but shy guy on Agent Carter, back for more of the same here. But not so shy this time.’‘You’re right. I was the handsome, enigmatic but shy guy on Agent Carter, back for more of the same here. But not so shy this time.’

Sometimes, though, she tends to channel a young Christina Ricci as Wednesday Addams in that immortal scene where she forced a smile and ended up terrifying her schoolmates instead.

If that paints Piper as a figure who is at once vulnerable and scary, well, there’s good reason for that – we learn her true nature pretty early on and it is unsettling, to say the least.

In fact, things unfold at a rather rapid clip on Emergence despite the initial episodes focusing more on its characters than tackling the central mystery.

Ten episodes in, the plot appears to have advanced a great deal further than with most genre series. (If this were, say, Lost, we would still be getting multiple point-of-view episodes about how the plane crashed.)

Tolman, who I had only seen previously in a supporting role in the Christmas horror-comedy Krampus, establishes her position as the series’ centre and heart right out of the gate.

She juggles the many facets of her character with a skill worthy of a Guinness record-breaker: whether it’s Jo justifying her “fostering” of Piper to her family (teenage daughter, ailing father and worried ex-husband), enlisting her subordinates and best friend to keep things hush-hush, facing off against shady individuals trying to grab the girl, or standing up to the sinister, monolithic forces behind those people.

But the high point of her performance has to be how she tempers her powerful maternal instincts towards Piper with the fears that surface (along with, as evident from Tolman’s look, a little terror) when she learns the truth about the child.

‘This worked in Poltergeist, so I’ll give it a try. Now you come right out of there, Carol Anne! Uh, I mean Piper!’‘This worked in Poltergeist, so I’ll give it a try. Now you come right out of there, Carol Anne! Uh, I mean Piper!’

Rallying around Tolman’s beacon, the excellent supporting ensemble helps to create a believable extended family-and-friends dynamic: Clancy Brown as Jo’s dad, Ashley Aufderheide as her daughter Mia, Zabryna Guevara as Jo’s bestie Abby, Robert Bailey Jr as a cop who often finds himself pitted against forces way above his league, and – OMG – Scrubs’ Donald Faison as the sympathetic but concerned ex.

Possibly on Jo’s side: freelance reporter Benny Gallagher (The Mentalist’s Owain Yeoman) who thankfully does not exist solely to deliver exposition, and Emily Cox (Maria Dizzia), a researcher who works for the abovementioned sinister forces.

But this is Emergence, and you will know about, oh, three episodes in that this is a show that delights in constantly pulling the rug out from under its viewers’ feet, keeping us off balance yet also intrigued and pleased.

(Whether or not that helps earn it a second season has yet to be seen, though I would most definitely add that to my watchlist.)

For the relatively fast clip at which the plot has advanced, Emergence does tend to be somewhat understated at times, with a sort of easygoing vibe that reaches out and affects the viewer too.

Still, there’s nothing like a man melting into a puddle of dark ooze to jolt you out of any tranquillity into which you’ve settled.

Emergence airs every Wednesday at 9pm on Fox HD (Astro Ch 724/unifi TV Ch 453).

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