In 2019, you need not look far to find a pretty good genre-adjacent mystery thriller; the past few years alone have seen the introduction of shows like Stranger Things, Castle Rock, and The Haunting of Hill House. Even a show like Black Mirror can probably be thrown in there too. Then you have ABC, a network trying to enter a saturated market with Emergence. When a streaming giant like Netflix sinks major cash into a juggernaut like Stranger Things, there's no way a network can compete with that — right? How does a new genre show stand out in a world run by legacy properties and franchises?
You only traverse a few moments into the Emergence pilot before you start getting tones of shows that have come before. Right out of the gate, fans might be quick to draw comparisons to another ABC show involving a mysterious plane crash. Then there is the preteen protagonist being chased by a whole slew of bad guys, all while she tries coming to terms with some kind of telekinetic powers. Yet Emergence still manages to cobble together a solid pilot that sets up a promising future.
It's immediately apparent Emergence is very much Allison Tolman's show and for a very good reason — she wholeheartedly deserves it. Tolman steals every scene she's in with incredible authenticity, playing a no-nonsense police chief of a sleepy fishing town. In fact, Tolman's character almost instantly recognizes something is wrong with the situation she manages to find herself in, a plot device that instantly draws your attention. There was no need for Tolman's Chief Jo Evans to follow clues and tips for half a season to recognize she was in the midst of a wild government conspiracy. Not just that, but other characters in the show have little difficulty believing her or showing all too much skepticism and for that, tremendous applause to Tara Butters, Michele Fazekas, and the writer's room on hitting the ground running.
Then there's Alexa Swinton, the actress behind Piper, the aforementioned preteen protagonist. Admittedly, it's all too easy for fans and critics alike to compare the role to Millie Bobby Brown's Eleven in Stranger Things. Sure, the two characters end up having a pretty similar origin and skillset, but the two are also incredible performers for their age, especially when considering the difficulty of the story they were placed into the middle of.
Emergence manages to efficiently blend together a few different tones for a surprisingly cohesive vibe. It's got the fantastical mystery of Lost, the sci-fi horror of Stranger Things, and the alien enigma of The X-Files. There are plenty of points in the pilot where the show could go off on a tangent down any of those paths, yet it's a fairly even balance throughout.
In this day and age, it will be interesting to see how the masses respond to a show that hedges its bets on keeping fans interested week to week with its massive, mystery-filled setups. With binge-watching readily available for comparable shows, it's yet to be seen if the massive cliffhangers will end up being detrimental for future seasons of the show — or maybe that's too much of a pessimistic view on the current television landscape.
Though fans may struggle to pick Emergence out of a lineup among a handful of other genre thrillers, the pilot lays a solid foundation for an intriguing series. Featuring a stellar cast anchored by Tolman and Swinton with surprisingly good performances by Clancy Brown and Donald Faison, Emergence could have a promising future ahead of it should it manage to separate itself from the competition.
Rating: 3 out of 5
Emergence debuts tonight on ABC at 10 p.m. ET.