Alexa Swinton in EMERGENCE - Season 1 - "Mile Marker 14" | ©2019 ABC/Eric Liebowitz

Alexa Swinton in EMERGENCE – Season 1 – “Mile Marker 14” | ©2019 ABC/Eric Liebowitz

EMERGENCE, ABC’s new Tuesday-night sci-fi family drama, begins with a mysterious plane crash on a beach outside a small town. When the town’s police chief, Jo Evans (Allison Tolman), investigates, she finds that the crash’s only survivor is a little girl eventually dubbed Piper (Alexa Swinton). Piper seems to have no memory of the crash, or even her own identity. Jo winds up taking the child home, to the surprise of her dad Ed (Clancy Brown) and her daughter Mia (Ashley Aufderheide), as well as the consternation of Mia’s dad and Jo’s ex-husband Alex (Donald Faison). Then strange people start trying to kidnap Piper and Piper starts demonstrating unusual abilities.

This is all just in the first hour of EMERGENCE, created by the writing/producing partners Tara Butters & Michele Fazekas. The pair previously created the genre series KEVIN (PROBABLY) SAVES THE WORLD and REAPER, and served as show runners on RESURRECTION and MARVEL’S AGENT CARTER. After meeting each other while both were working on THE X-FILES, Fazekas & Butters teamed up as writers/producers for LAW & ORDER: SVU, DOLLHOUSE, and HAWAII FIVE-0.

ASSIGNMENT X: When and how did you come up with the idea for EMERGENCE?

TARA BUTTERS: Last summer, we were working on what we were going to develop, and we do this process, which is called Toy Box, that the [Disney] Imagineers do, and we were using that, and we found that there was a general area that we were circling, which was sort of our world, with something magical that happens in it. And with that, and then thinking of the influences of Spielberg, we basically landed on EMERGENCE, and the tone, and wanting something that could be bold, family-oriented, but kind of scary and fun.

AX: Should we infer anything from the title of EMERGENCE that this is something new, or at least something we haven’t seen before?

BUTTERS: Yeah.

AX: With the progression from REAPER to AGENT CARTER to KEVIN and now EMERGENCE, it seems like the tone and the balance of comedy and drama on your shows has been shifting somewhat …

MICHELE FAZEKAS: We go back and forth. We like to play in both.

BUTTERS: We were on SVU for five years.

AX: But you didn’t create SVU …

FAZEKAS: No, but when you write nineteen episodes, it feels like you did [laughs].

BUTTERS: And EMERGENCE, I would say, is a little more dramatic [than Butters and Fazekas’s previous creations] – certainly more dramatic than KEVIN, and not as broad as even AGENT CARTER. I think the nice thing about actors like Allison and Donald is, because they can do comedy, it’s more about how families are funny, and how we’re funny in our lives, where they can drop these wry lines and then go right back to a dramatic scene.

Ashley Aufderheide as Mia Evans, Robert Bailey Jr. as Officer Chris Minetto, Clancy Brown as Ed, Alexa Swinton as Piper, Allison Tolman as Jo Evans, Zabryna Guevara as Abby Fraiser, Donald Faison as Alex Evans, and Owain Yeoman as Benny Gallagher in EMERGENCE - Season 1 | ©2019 ABC/Frank Ockenfels

Ashley Aufderheide as Mia Evans, Robert Bailey Jr. as Officer Chris Minetto, Clancy Brown as Ed, Alexa Swinton as Piper, Allison Tolman as Jo Evans, Zabryna Guevara as Abby Fraiser, Donald Faison as Alex Evans, and Owain Yeoman as Benny Gallagher in EMERGENCE – Season 1 | ©2019 ABC/Frank Ockenfels

AX: While EMERGENCE is a drama, there definitely is humor in it. Do you have to work to find places for it, or do you instinctively land on your humor?

FAZEKAS: We always try and put that in scripts, I think, and because Allison and Donald and Clancy – everybody on the show has really good comic timing, so it’s very easy to do, and it’s very natural for us. Everyone’s like that. My favorite thing is inappropriate humor, like everyone is making a joke at a funeral. That’s kind of how life is. We like that.

AX: Can you weave in anybody from KEVIN to EMERGENCE – you had a couple of REAPER guests on KEVIN – or are the universes too different?

FAZEKAS: I don’t think as their characters, no, but just wait. Maybe in our next run, we would [bring in some former KEVIN cast members] for sure if we could.

AX: How do the two of you divide up your work on EMERGENCE?

BUTTERS: Michele and I have been writing partners for twenty years. So we have a really great balance of, we split things up, we are able to, if she’s rewriting, I’m in the [writers’] room, or I’m in post, or I’m on set, or vice-versa. So it’s been a long marriage.

AX: A lot of EMERGENCE centers on Piper. Did you have any qualms about laying so much of your plot on Alexa Swinton, who is a fairly young, and then you have a supporting character, Mia, played by Ashley Aufderheide, who is also fairly young?

BUTTERS: You know, it’s the first time we’ve really had [a child lead character]. Chloe East [who played Reese Cabrera] on KEVIN was really sixteen playing fourteen. Alexa and Ashley are phenomenal actors, and have been wonderful. The challenge is how many hours they can [under union rules] shoot a week. And that was definitely something we’ve had to try to work around and figure out how to do it, because they have a strong presence in the show, and they should. It’s a family. So it has definitely been a challenge to us.

AX: How did you decide on what Jo’s family configuration should be?

BUTTERS: I’ve never seen a divorced family portrayed in a way where they were trying really hard to get along. Usually, you’re using it for conflict. And so it was really important to us that this is a family that loves each other, and is working really hard to keep that going, and keep that family together.

AX: Your lead, Allison Tolman, was extremely memorable playing a small-town law enforcement officer in the first season of FARGO. When you were writing Jo, was any part of you thinking of her as the FARGO character, or did you just create Jo and then go, “Oh, this would be great with Allison Tolman”?

FAZEKAS: I was not thinking Allison. You had had her in your head.

BUTTERS: As an archetype, yes.

FAZEKAS: When she was available, it seemed like, “Oh, she’s probably not going to want to do this, because it’s another cop,” and then we sat down and met with her, and she said, “Am I going to have to wear a uniform?” We said, “No,” and it was one of those things where it was like, “I want this too much, so we’re not going to get it,” and then we got it.

AX: Were Jo and Alex always planned to be an interracial couple, or is that just how it worked out with the casting?

BUTTERS: We always had kind of wanted an interracial couple, but we never dictated it in the script. We cast Mia first, who was the daughter, which sort of determined who we wanted to cast as the dad.

AX: As the different family members find out that Piper is more than just an ordinary lost child, how are they going to react to what they learn?

BUTTERS: There are different reactions.

AX: Is a lot of EMERGENCE about Jo’s conflict between being protective of Piper and wondering if she has to protect her family from Piper?

FAZEKAS: It sort of is wrapped up into finding out what Piper’s origins are. Also, Piper is a kid who already, someone tried to kidnap her, and a plane may have crashed around her. So dangerous things are around her. Whether or not she herself is dangerous, dangerous things are around her, and you do at a certain point have to decide, “Do I want to bring this into my family?” And it’s a fair question for Alex, Donald’s character, to be asking.

AX: Are we going to find out relatively soon whether what’s going on is terrestrial or extraterrestrial, mechanical or organic?

BUTTERS: We answer questions quickly, yes. We’re not holding onto the answers. I want to answer the questions to be able to then those stories.

AX: If you answer those questions, will you pose new ones?

FAZEKAS: Yes. There’s always a continuing mystery. Once you get some information, there are a lot of layers to it. But we’ll answer a big question very early.

AX: There is a game of “would you rather” in the first episode that seems like it might be a portent of something. Will that game come up later with greater plot significance?

BUTTERS: It definitely will give you some insight. We don’t necessarily continue with it, but it will have meaning later.

AX: You shoot EMERGENCE in New Jersey. How did you settle on New Jersey, and how is making a show there?

FAZEKAS: You know, we wanted an East Coast feel to the show. Even though it’s beach, we wanted something that felt different, felt more unique, and we’ve had a great experience of shooting in New Jersey. We shot in New Jersey for SVU, so you have great crews, and you get to pull from the New York casting, so we’ve had a wonderful experience.

AX: You have some fairly big physical events and effects in the EMERGENCE pilot. How many big physical events can you afford to have in an episode?

FAZEKAS: We push those boundaries.

BUTTERS: We want to have as much as we can in every episode. We did it on AGENT CARTER. We pitched it [as having] set pieces. And they’ll be different. It won’t always be a giant car chase.

FAZEKAS: But we always want tension, suspense, action, and good old-fashioned jumps.

AX: Speaking of AGENT CARTER, do you have a sense of parental pride that James D’Arcy, who played Howard Stark’s loyal right hand Edwin Jarvis for you on that series, shows up as Jarvis in AVENGERS: ENDGAME?

BUTTERS: Yes, so much.

FAZEKAS: We knew about it for awhile [before it became public knowledge]. It was one of those things where it was so exciting to see.

BUTTERS: It’s the only character from the Marvel TV Universe to move to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

AX: And what would you most like people to know about EMERGENCE?

BUTTERS: I think there’s something for everyone. I think you don’t have to like science fiction to watch it, you don’t have to only like science fiction. There’s fun for everyone, I believe. And we know the mysteries [laughs].

FAZEKAS: That’s the thing. What I like about the show so much is that I can watch it with my kids, my mom, my husband. They all enjoyed it, and for different reasons. And that was important to us. There’s genre, there’s sci-fi, but there’s also a really strong family drama at the heart of it, and hopefully, that’s what will keep it fresh and different from genre shows you’ve seen on broadcast in the last couple years, because we’re always going to have a really strong family presence.

This interview was conducted at ABC’s party for the Summer 2019 Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour.

Related: EMERGENCE star Allison Tolman talks about playing a cop again on new genre series – Exclusive Interview

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