This is the first of two WWWednesday columns that will be single-subject instead of a links roundup. Next week, November 27, I’ll give my reactions to the network TV show Evil.
ABC, Tuesdays, 10:00 pm
I watched the first two episodes of ABC’s Emergence wondering exactly what kind of show it was, and I wasn’t alone in that. Twitter filled up with people tweeting, “It’s just like Stranger Things,” “Is it Fringe?” and so on. By Episode Three of the new series, the show revealed its true colors. It is not a Gifted Child in Jeopardy show, it’s not solely a Conspiracy show, and it’s not merely a family drama. It is actual science fiction.
This column will contain some spoilers – although it’s hard to say how spoilerish they are, when the show reveals its primary twist in Ep 3.
Jo Evans (Allison Tolman) is the chief of police in a small seaside town. She lives with her daughter Mia and her own father Ed, who is undergoing cancer treatments. A small plane crashes outside the town limits, and things immediately get strange. The National Transportation Safety Board shows up quickly – too quickly – and hauls off the wreckage. There are no survivors, but Jo finds a frightened little girl at the perimeter of the crash. There isn’t even any evidence that the child is part of the crash, but she is traumatized into silence, and Jo takes her to the hospital. The “NTSB,” who turn out to be fake, show up demanding custody of the child but leave when Jo calls their bluff. This scene, in which one of the NTSB guys threatens to drag them all off to some special rendition prison and Jo says, “The NTSB doesn’t have arrest authority… but I do,” won me over immediately.
Jo takes the healthy but frightened girl, who says she can’t remember anything, to her home, and starts calling her Piper. The next attempt to retrieve the girl involves a couple claiming to be her parents, but Jo cleverly sees through their story, and they also leave quickly. Meanwhile, the audience sees that electronics and metals, particularly iron and steel, react strangely around Piper when she is distressed.
In short order Jo connects with a home invader kidnapper, a sinister tech billionaire and a conspiracy-chasing fringe journalist named Benny. Alex, who is Jo’s ex and Mia’s father, enters the picture as well. Jo tries to keep the little girl – and her own family – safe while figuring out just who Piper is, and who wants her.
By Ep 3 the truth the viewers have suspected is confirmed; Piper is a biological Artificial Intelligence.
In spite of that revelation, the show continues to spend a good deal of time on family matters, and this is a good thing. This is the “what-if” part of the story; can an AI in form of a child fit into a human family? Does the AI actually get an advantage from assuming the form of something we are socialized to nurture and protect? Jo asks one expert, “Will she grow?” and the question is not answered. I think this is an important question for the series and the showrunners know it; if Piper is actually a human child with AI implanted, the ethical issues get much thornier. If she is a synthetic human, she is an excellent one who has already fooled at least one doctor. Early in the first season, however, the concern is whether Piper is a weapon, and what happened with the airplane and, later on, a car indicates that she can be.
In the first six episodes, though, the main plotline stays pretty much in Conspiracyland, with the sinister tech billionaire (Terry O’Quinn) wanting his property back at any cost, with an undecrypted hard drive, and a snippet of video that makes Piper suddenly shift from vulnerable to scary, even though her day-to-day behavior hasn’t changed.
Having seen seven episodes, I am afraid that the storytelling won’t hold up, but the episode-by-episode writing is excellent; realistic, funny, and genuinely small-town. An excellent cast contributes by delivering realistic performances. Donald Faison, as Jo’s ex, convinces as a smart, decent man and loving father who still loves Jo. Clancy Brown as Ed, dealing with a fatal disease and ultimately making an important decision about his treatment, is as good as Brown always is; he has gravitas, vulnerability and a warmth that makes us care about Ed and worry about him. Robert Bailey Jr. plays Officer Chris Minetto, and the chemistry between him and Jo is wonderful. In the sixth episode, when Jo brings him in on the secret and tells him that Piper is AI, the scene was so priceless that I called my husband in and replayed it for him. Mia, Jo’s daughter, is a character whose decisions move the plot at times, and Ashley Aufderheide sparkles in the role. As I said, the line-by-line writing is good, and with a few necessary exceptions, adults in this drama act like intelligent people trying to keep two children safe.
One exception to plausibility is any of the police procedural material. The showrunners wisely realize that if they tried to make that realistic, about seven things Jo’s already done would be illegal, so they blithely ignore that part of the story. Jo is a good police chief in a different way; she knows her town, she knows her people, she is smart, clever and brave. This show doesn’t commit the sin of billing itself as a police procedural and then upending decades of court-established protocols and best practices (I’m looking at you, Prodigal Son on Fox.)
Another implausible thing that is needed for the plot is a statement that Piper can never know she is an AI; that would cause a “fatal error” and would destroy her. This makes zero sense (and it may be that the person who told us that is lying), but, if that’s the world they’ve built, I will go with it. If I don’t quibble when some people’s vampires can be out in sunlight, then I won’t quibble over this plot device, or at least not yet.
In Episode Six the story took another turn, and I fear the show has slipped into territory already prospected by Steven Spielberg’s film AI, which would be a horrible disappointment. I hope that this is a temporary detour, and not the rest of the season.
So far the depiction of family life, great writing and great performances are buoying up what might otherwise be a predictable thriller. I hope this show continues to explore the What-Ifs of its premise.