Chances are, you’ve got quite a few pressing questions after seeing the first episode of ABC’s latest mystery-drama Emergence. Although it gave us a nice preview of most of its central characters’ personalities, the pilot also built quite a mystery without explaining much about Piper (Alexa Swinton), the apparent survivor of a beachfront plane crash. The good news, though, is that the series will not drag out its revelation of what’s really going on with this unusual little girl, and some answers are imminent.
“You won’t have to wait too long to answer the questions that you have from the pilot,” series lead Allison Tolman told TV Guide at this summer’s Television Critics Association. “We’re still shooting, so we only know the broad strokes, but our writers are really going to tease things out, and every answer will only lead to more questions.”
The series premiere introduces us to Tolman as Jo, the police chief of Long Island’s Peconic Bay, as she responds to an aerial accident that appears to have left one petrified little survivor hiding in the sand dunes. This girl has no memory of who she is or how she got there, and the only person she seems to trust is the soft-spoken Jo, who knows a thing or two about nurturing a child after raising her own teenage daughter Bree (Ashley Aufderheide). Jo initially follows protocol and transports the girl to the local hospital for evaluation, but the situation gets strange very, very quickly.
When ostensible agents of the National Transportation Safety Board show up to the facility and start aggressively demanding access to the girl’s medical records, she disappears, and Jo finds her in her police car — but only after noticing that the vehicle’s power has been disabled and the rain stream on her windshield is flowing sideways. When the child emerges (see what we did there?) with apologies for her terrifying little escape stunt, we get our first clue that she might just be responsible for some or all of these strange phenomena.
Sensing that something is amiss, Jo takes her to her own home for safekeeping, and her cancer-stricken father Ed (Clancy Brown) and Bree take a liking to the girl right away. As a unit, they give her the new name Piper, which Jo claims was once meant for her own daughter, and she makes herself at home. Things again get weird, though, when a mysterious symbol pops up on a frazzled television screen when Piper’s alone for a second.
Jo later encounters a journalist named Benny (Owain Yeoman) who precisely predicts the federal government’s cover-up story for the plane crash, and she’s also stunned when a couple claiming to be Piper’s parents — who lovingly call her Olivia but have no pictures of her stored on their phone — turn out to be imposters. Realizing that there may be danger to Piper, Jo’s family joins together to protect her, and although Jo and her husband Alex (Donald Faison) are no longer together, he is roped into the protection detail as well.
Donald Faison told TV Guide at TCA that while Alex respects the fact that Jo “is a very caring, compassionate person, and she takes her job very seriously, he also knows that this girl is a danger to all of them.”
Alex’s hesitation about Jo bringing Piper into their lives proves to be well-founded right away. Although they try to take Piper under cover, their hideaway is burglarized, which endangers them all, and Piper is kidnapped by an intruder.
However, as Jo gives chase to the getaway car, she watches the vehicle suddenly jolt to a violent stop and flip over, with Piper coming away from the crash completely unscathed. She then promises Jo that she’ll try and remember her past and later pictures herself being submerged in a pool of water. Piper then pulls out a box cutter she’d stolen from Ed and cuts out a spherical device from beneath her ear with nary a flinch; the device has the same mysterious symbol as the TV.
If that last shot gives you an ominous feeling about Piper, your instincts may be as spot-on as Alex’s.
“I think she is complicated,” Emergence co-creator Tara Butters told TV Guide in a phone interview. “She definitely is someone that it’s okay to have complicated feelings about.” But Butters also assures that viewers won’t have to dwell on the question of what’s going on with the girl much longer. “A lot of what is going on with Piper, you’ll have a much better understanding as soon as Episode 3,” she said. “We planned to kinda answer questions, and we always find that you can give people answers, and it only poses more questions.”
Although the sci-fi and mystery elements of Emergence will still inform the series as it carries on this fall, one of the reasons the show will be able to tick off so many of the question boxes so early on is that it is poised to give equal importance to its familial drama developments.
“We were very influenced by the [Steven] Spielberg [works] of the 1980s, with ET, Close Encounters, and wanting to do sort of a genre show that had a strong influence of family which both of those films do — a fractured family who is going through things to try to stay together while being thrust in a larger experience,” Butters said. “We really wanted to combine the genre show with a family drama and have the family be as important as the mystery.”
One mystery we do have the answer to right away, though, is that there won’t be some secret connection between Piper and Jo, despite all those eerily reflective shots of their faces that make them look so much alike. Butters explained, “It is a weird thing. Alexa Swinton is just a wonderful actress, and casting a 10-year-old is not the easiest thing. But she came in and blew us away. And it’s funny, Allison later said, ‘You know, she looks a lot like me when I was her age.’ So, it’s just a weird coincidence.”
Emergence airs on Tuesdays at 10/9c on ABC.
– Additional reporting by Sadie Gennis