ABC has returned to the East End. While the network’s last series to take place on Long Island, Revenge, was a campy soap set in a wildly inaccurate version of the Hamptons, Emergence, set in Southold, is a science fiction mystery that is more successful in evoking the North Fork. Emergence tells the story of Jo Evans (a terrific Allison Tolman), Police Chief of Southold, who is called to investigate a small plane crash on the beach and finds an unharmed but shaken little girl (Alexa Swinton) suffering from amnesia. After a series of ominous events—including a strange cover-up in which false NTSB agents clear the plane crash from the beach overnight—Jo takes in the little girl, who she calls Piper. As the series progresses, Piper becomes close with Jo’s family, including daughter Mia (Ashley Aufderheide), father Ed (Clancy Brown) and even Jo’s ex-husband, Alex (Donald Faison). Jo also works with investigative journalist Benny (Owain Yeoman) to figure out just who—or what—Piper is, and why a shadowy tech corporation is after her.
Emergence is currently about halfway through its first season, and to its credit has already answered the basic questions posed in its premiere. Piper appears to be some kind of artificial intelligence that was subjected to experimentation by Augur Industries, complete with human-like blood and organs. Benny and Jo learn from an ex-Augur employee, Emily (Maria Dizzia), that Piper doesn’t actually know she’s not human, and that telling her would result in a fatal exception that would essentially kill her. Piper also has the power to manipulate metal when she’s under distress, inadvertently endangering everyone around her.
While Emergence is primarily filmed in New Jersey—though the pilot used some establishing shots of Greenport—it does a nice job of making the Southold setting feel authentic. A fictional version of the iconic Claudio’s restaurant is frequently mentioned and visited by the characters, and the specter of the mysterious Plum Island (the real-life site of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, controlled by the Department of Homeland Security) often looms in the background.
Tolman is fantastic as the no-nonsense but warm Jo, who takes an instant liking to Piper but often questions her own judgment as her family is put in danger. As Piper, Swinton conveys just the right amount of sweetness, with a dash of unsettling stares to throw viewers off from trusting her completely. The rest of the cast is strong, but Tolman and Swinton provide the majority of the show’s gravitas. Emergence has moved at quite a nice clip so far, introducing both the show’s villain, Richard Kindred (Terry O’Quinn) and the AI concept after just three episodes. There are also a few simmering subplots featuring Jo’s family, including her unresolved feelings for amiable ex Alex and Ed’s terminal cancer diagnosis that Piper could sense before anyone else.
It remains to be seen if a high concept-led series like Emergence has staying power. How long can Jo realistically keep Piper and her family safe before Augur Industries simply starts killing them? The show’s already got quite the body count—minor characters are often introduced and killed a few scenes later, usually because “they know too much.” Hopefully there is a long-term vision for the show’s future, because so far, Emergence is quite compelling.
Watch Emergence on Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. on ABC.