Almost every TV season, either ABC or NBC must debut a science-fiction series in which viewers are teased with a mystery, answers only lead to more questions, and no one really knows what the hell is going on until the season finale, if the show gets that far. Last year it was NBC's Manifest, the year before that it was ABC's The Crossing, and, in the years before that The Whispers, Resurrection, Believe, Zero Hour (OMG remember Zero Hour?), and The Event, to name a few. The basis of the mysteries may change (The Whispers and The Event had aliens, Resurrection had zombies, Zero Hour had frickin' Nazis) but the results are usually the same: a quick cancellation. Of those shows, only Resurrection and Manifest made it to second seasons.
This season ABC's Emergence joins the group, both in the mystery sci-fi genre and, probably, in the early grave. (Emergence actually comes from both ABC and NBC, as it was developed by NBC, which passed on it, allowing ABC to swoop in; passed over by NBC isn't a good sign.) While not bad in any way, Emergence doesn't make good use of the one thing that can give these types of shows a successful launch, which could be its death knell. On the surface, Emergence's mystery is a simple one: A plane crashes, and a little girl found near the crash site has no memory of who she is and is the target of mysterious bad dudes who want her for reasons unknown. DUN-DUN!
The problem is the first episode thinks that's enough to sustain viewers' interest and it gives us nothing more. The episode-ending WOW moment would have fared better at the first commercial break, and if that's an indication of how the season is going to be paced, we should get answers sometime around March. In other words, do any of us have time for this sh--? (For the record, the cast and creators say we'll get answers soon, but isn't that what they always say?)
I respect that creators Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas, who gave us the wonderful Reaper and the less wonderful Kevin (Probably) Saves the World, are angling this as a more character-driven sci-fi series and hired the talented Allison Tolman as the cop who finds and cares for the young girl (an impressive Alexa Swinton), but all of us are here for answers, dammit. As networks continue (in 2019, no less) to chase the absolute pandemonium of Lost, there's been a formula with mystery-box shows to lure in an audience: Hook 'em hard, right off the bat. Get the big audience immediately, and hope there's enough story to keep it. It doesn't often work, but it's better than the alternative of starting slow, especially now that audiences are more fickle and less patient with options up the wazoo.
Emergence goes away from that formula by not addressing the main mystery enough in its first hour. The character development can come as a pleasant surprise once we're already theorizing that the girl is an alien, a product of a cloning conspiracy, or a crab person from the center of the Earth, because as depressing as it may sound, that's what we're tuning into Emergence for. Maybe you've heard, but there's a lot of TV out there, and to play the long game with a mystery-box network show just seems like the wrong way to go. (It can also be argued that mystery-box network shows themselves are the wrong way to go, but that would deprive us all of the fun.)
The pilot episode is a series of non-developments about the origins of the girl, how she's connected to the crash, and what exactly these superpowers she's displaying are. A few groups show up claiming to know the identity of the girl, who is given the name Piper, but Tolman's Jo sniffs them out quickly and shuts them down. But throughout the first hour, the question of who this girl is, posed in the show's opening seconds, is only repeated over and over with nothing close to an answer given to the audience to theorize off of. We know as much about the girl at the end of the episode as we do at the beginning, making the episode fairly non-essential, which is not how you want to start out these kind of shows.
What Emergence does pull off in its first episode is absolute trust in Jo. Through Tolman's performance, she becomes a character who is far from the stock hero we typically see in network sci-fi dramas. She's human, she's empathetic, she's real. The way she treats Piper early on is motherly, as if she's trying to save her from a system she knows will chew her up. At one point she acknowledges she's breaking the law — and asking a coworker to do the same — in the best interests of Piper. If Emergence is going to succeed, it will largely be in part to Tolman's human performance.
But because of the way the show was marketed — WHO IS THIS GIRL? — a story about a cop doing the right thing might not be what people show up for. Will we learn more about Piper in later episodes? Absolutely. But whether we'll be around to find out — or if the show is — is still unknown.
TV Guide Rating: 2/5
Emergence premieres Tuesday, Sept. 24 at 10/9c on ABC.