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'Emergence' review: Faux 'Stranger Things' set on faux Long Island

Alison Tolman (l) and Ashley Aufderheide star in

Alison Tolman (l) and Ashley Aufderheide star in ABC's "Emergence." Photo Credit: ABC/Zach Dilgard

SERIES "Emergence"

WHEN|WHERE Premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on ABC/7


 


WHAT IT'S ABOUT Jo Evans (Allison Tolman) is the Southold police chief, also divorced from Alex (Donald Faison), and mother of two who lives with her ailing dad, Ed (Clancy Brown), a former firefighter. One fateful night, the lights flicker, there's an explosion, and she's called to the scene of a plane crash on a beach. While there, a little girl with amnesia creeps from behind the dunes and attaches herself to Jo, who gives her a name - Piper (Alexa Swinton). Some bad people want Piper, but who are they? Aliens from (you know) up there, or government officials out on Plum Island?  

 

MY SAY "Emergence" is a "Stranger Things" thing. 

  There's nothing wrong, necessarily, with being a "Stranger Things" thing, because "Stranger Things" was itself once the thing of a half-dozen '80s landmarks, like "The Goonies."  

  But the tangents, or less kindly appropriations, here are inescapable. Squirrelly electric grid. Little girl with amnesia. Kind-hearted cop who befriends her. Sinister government installation that may or may not be to blame for said squirrelly grid. 

  With the simulated Long Island setting, "Emergence" almost seems to be redressing "Stranger Things'" own sin of omission. The Duffer Brothers originally planned to set their hit in the shadow of Montauk's Camp Hero, beset (or besmirched) with conspiracy theories about alien telepathy, mind control, time portals, kidnappings, and disappearing ships. Instead, "Emergence" casts its line to the north, out to Plum Island, with its own rich conspiratorial history, much centered on the infamous Building 257, and the old biological warfare research lab there. 

  The "Emergence" pilot doesn't mention 257, but doesn't have to. Just mention "Plum Island" and conspiracists will fill in the blanks. They already have.

  So what then is new here? The alluring setting certainly bests "Stranger Things." That endless sea, the sand, the waves, the wind...that could be the North Fork, right? Could be, but "Emergence" was almost entirely shot in New Jersey (for tax reasons). We must then deploy our imaginations, much as we once did with "Revenge," also set in the Hamptons, but filmed in North Carolina.

  "Emergence" is an intriguing, if not quite self-explanatory, title too. In science, and science fiction, "emergence" refers to something that has properties its individual parts don't have, like hurricanes or  sand dunes. What does "emergence" refer to here? That little girl, maybe, or Plum Island? Are they part of something bigger and badder? 

  "Emergence" was developed for NBC, which passed because the network already had a high-concept series in "Manifest," and audiences easily fatigue with these multilayered mind-trips. In an interview last week, showrunner and creator Tara Butters told me  me that many mysteries will be answered shortly. No need to wait, folks. (She also disabused the "Stranger Things" analogue. This is more homage to Steven Spielberg, she insisted.)

  What's best about "Emergence," however, is the cast, including Faison, who's always good (he was most recently in "Ray Donovan") and the great Clancy Brown (Mr. Krabs of "Spongebob," but you knew that.)  Tolman, best known from the second season of "Fargo," is a warm, soulful screen presence and a star waiting-to-happen.

  So go ahead. Check it out. The show might even get out to Plum for some episode. Imagine that? Alas, like the Long Island setting here, you'll probably have to.

 BOTTOM LINE A shame this wasn't really set on the Island, but the decent "Stranger Things"-loving pilot offers a reasonable approximation. 

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