By Carolyn Hinds
ABC Studios has always been known to produce some of the best genre shows on television, and this September audiences will be treated to Emergence, a new show where science fiction, thriller and family drama combine.
Starring Allison Tolman as Jo, Emergence follows this Long Island police chief who finds a young girl (Alexa Swinton), later named Piper, hiding on the beach after a plane crashes on shore. After learning Piper has no memory of what happened or who she is, Jo takes Piper into her home. When mysterious men turn up pretending to be government officials, Jo soon realizes that there’s more to Piper’s story than her simply being a lost child, and her family may be in danger.
Created by television juggernauts Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters, who brought us shows such as Marvel’s Agent Carter and the Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Emergence continues the trend of showcasing strong and complex female characters. Fazekas explained that with a sci-fi show helmed by women, there is a responsibility that comes with the territory.
“Most of the time what I feel with sci-fi and if it’s women behind the scenes it’s niche, it’s indie,” Fazekas said. “So you feel like there’s a responsibility with that being in this mainstream spotlight. It’s not the first time we’ve done a genre show or a show that has science fiction in it.”
Butters added, “I do understand what you’re saying, in the sense that I think a lot of times women aren’t given the opportunity to do genre or sci-fi, and I think if you just look around Comic-Con, and you see how many female fans there are, and you go, ‘They’re gonna be the next creative force. It’s just a matter of time.’”
In most genre shows where there is a ‘found child’ element to the story, the lead is usually male, but Tolman’s Jo is a woman comfortable in asserting her authority at work and home: “What I love about Jo is that she is assertive, and she is maternal, but she’s both of those things at the same time. She’s not like a mother Earth character that’s just nothing but nurturing and is just driven by her heart. She’s practical and really good at what she does, but she’s also like, ‘This is what’s good, and this is what’s right and what’s right is taking care of this kid.’”
As a genre, sci-fi has always explored the ways humans may and could interact with others who have special abilities, and children as these beings lends to a certain sense of mystery. For both Fazekas and Butters, creatives such as Steven Spielberg and shows like The X-Files – where the pair met while working – were major influences in their careers and in creating Emergence.
When I asked about what they think makes children so interesting as protagonists, Butters said, “Movies like Close Encounters, E.T., the things we grew up with that you always say, it’s the extraordinary things that’s happening in a normal world, and kind of exploring that… like, how does it affect this family? And the other thing is, I want to see a family I can relate to, just in the sense that it’s a little messy and you know, they aren’t perfect and yet we’re living in this world that has sci-fi elements and genre.”
Apart from the sci-fi element, Emergence has a strong sense of unity, which comes mainly from the family which operates as the grounding force of the show. Played by Donald Faison, Jo’s ex-husband Alex serves as her sounding board. Unlike many other genre projets, where Black characters are either relegated to small, supporting roles or used to fulfill tropes, Alex and their daughter Mia (Ashley Aufderheide) are their own people. Instead of being present to exist as the comic relief – as most Black characters are in genre – Alex acts as the grounding force for Jo (and the series as a whole) by being the voices of reason when she has the potential to be caught up in what’s happening with Piper.
“I wasn’t even thinking about it like that, until I got the role and was like ‘Wow! Holy cow! I’m gonna be on ABC again!'” Faison said. “Before, in my career, I played a pretty popular doctor, you know what I mean? I understood that before me there were so many other people like Eric LaSalle, and I knew that I had a responsibility to play him with integrity. And, so with this I feel like we’re telling not only that story, but we’re also telling a story of divorce — that divorce doesn’t have to be the typical divorce where they’re hating each other and throwing things at each other…and I especially don’t want to be doing that as a Black male on television.”
He added, “So, it’s really cool to be a part of this and really not have to think about it. Like, we never mention that we’re in an interracial relationship; you’re just gonna have to accept that. You’re just gonna have to accept that we have a daughter, you know what I mean? And you’re right, hopefully we will be the grounding force in my ex-wife’s life, and her mom’s life. You’re right she can go off the chain and hopefully our characters are there to reel her back in, and that is important to see…somebody who can do that, that doesn’t look like everyone else on TV.”
Emergence premieres Tuesday, September 24 at 10/9c on ABC. You can see the full series trailer below.