Emergence preview: What you need to know about the ABC series

Alison Tolman and Alexa Swinton star in ABC’s Pilot episode of Emergence. Pic credit: ABC Studios / Virginia Sherwood

Tonight, ABC debuts Emergence, a new mystery show mashed with the complex drama of a modern family. Created by the writing and producing team of Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters (Agent Carter), viewers will be pulled into a large scale emergency that plays out when the lead character, Police Chief Jo Evans (played by Fargo’s Allison Tolman) tries to help a young girl named Piper (Billions’ Alexa Swinton) found at the scene of a mysterious accident.

Monsters and Critics spoke to the cast and crew of Emergence.

Setting the stage

Jo is recently divorced from Alex (Scrubs’ Donald Faison) and they have a daughter, Mia (Ashley Aufderheide). They’re struggling though the early awkward stages of separating. Ed (Sam Clancy) is Jo’s trustworthy and supportive father and Dr. Abby (Zabryna Guevara) is her best friend and Mia’s pediatrician. 

At the scene of this accident, Jo meets an agitated journalist named Benny (Owain Yeoman) who uses his humorous banter as a device for getting to the bottom of things and a green officer on the force Chris Minetto (Robert Bailey Jr.) who gets pulled into the greater conspiracy of who Piper is. 

Tolman confirms that the series is equal parts mystery and thriller and explains how the relationships within this recently fractured family change when you introduce this great unknown.

“Jo’s a mother and caring but that’s not all who she is, she’s not just driven by her maternal instincts,” affirms Tolman. 

“She’s just a good decent person. She says repeatedly, ‘What else am I supposed to do?’ This kid needs help from someone and is acting on her common decency. There’s a kid who needs help and  a parent, an advocate and she’s going to rise to the occasion.”

Fazekas shared that the idea of a police officer finding a kid and taking them in is based on a real story that a woman she knew, whose mother was in LAPD and responded to a crime scene and found a five-year-old girl, took her in, adopted and raised her.

“We wanted to start with a character where you go, ‘I love this person, not because she’s Mother Theresa like, but because she decides that this is the right thing to do, the practical thing so I’m just going to do it.’ She doesn’t think about it too much.”

And that sometimes gets her in trouble too, at home with her ex-husband Alex.

A different side of divorce

Emergence aims to show a different side of divorce, where exes still love each other and are friendly. Stumbling through this new state of normal, Faison knows that it’s not a common thing to see on television but it does exist. 

“They’re co-parenting, and so there’s no fights about money,” Faison explained. “It’s more about what are we going to do to better the life of our girl? Once this new girl comes around, he’s skeptical of everything.” 

Alex sees Piper as a threat to his family. Mia takes to her quickly and being an only child, she becomes a big sister to Piper. The more attention Mia gives to Piper, the less time he has with his daughter.

“This isn’t the arrangement Alex and Jo had–(suddenly) we’re changing things,” Faison added. ” They’re breaking rules and Alex doesn’t know how long he can allow this to happen before he has to step in.”

“It brings him back to the house to investigate why there’s this little girl around and then things happen. Then he understands that he has to keep his daughter safe because life has become dangerous for all of them. So Alex chooses to be around this, to protect Mia.” 

Watch the first nine minutes of the pilot below.

It’s all a mystery

When asked if the title Emergence refers to Piper’s extraordinary gifts, or if there is something emerges out of each character, the cast was coy on divulging details this early.

“I’m trying to see how we can handle that–” Yeoman said laughing. “But I think it has wider ramifications.”

“I think it’s about how the story develops, and how we begin to learn things and the emergence of our understanding of what this is,” thought Guevara. “It could eventually develop into something that is thematic across the ensemble, but right now, I don’t have the impression that is the case.”

In any television mystery, the cast operates in the dark, with little given to them about their characters or arcs in order to maintain secrecy.  But the reactions to scripts packed with information to move the story forward is encouraging so as to not leave audiences dangling with unanswered questions for long stretches of time.

Answers come quickly, which expands the mystery equally fast, but that should satisfy viewers who need to feel like their time invested will pay off, especially in this era of instant gratification.

Having a plan

Ironically, this week marks the 15th anniversary of ABC’s TV-redefining series, Lost, which ignited many more shows hoping to piggyback off its success. Yet with superheroes and fantasy as big as ever, science-fiction series like Emergence has a shot that is as good as any.

“When we pitched this as a series, we were thinking of where we think we’d go in the first three seasons,” said Butters. 

“We want to make sure we are giving the audience enough information. You don’t want to feel like you’re being jerked around, and the difference (we think viewers will find) is the family, and telling the family stories within this mystery is something we were excited about trying to do because we like blending the genres.” 

Fazekas and Butters have worked together on many shows including Agent Carter, Dollhouse, Reaper and Kevin (Probably) Saves the World, and in the development stages, wanted to touch on those Steven Spielberg tones like E.T or Close Encounters, where an extraordinary thing happens to an ordinary family. Through their past experiences, knew when setting up a mystery show, the key is to know where the series is heading. 

As for where the heart of the show resides? The chemistry between Tolman and Swinton is an immediate reason to tune in, as is Clancy Brown’s performances. But Fazekas also wants to draw viewers into the relationship between Alex and Jo. 

“You root for them; they haven’t figured out how to act around each other. It’s a little messy and I want to keep that in there. I loved seeing them in scenes together. Right now it’s the relationship between Jo and Piper but I don’t think it’s the only one.”

Emergence airs Tuesdays at 10/9c on ABC.

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