how mysterious!

Emergence’s Showrunners on How to Build a Puzzle-Box Show

Alexa Swinton as Piper and Allison Tolman as Jo in Emergence.
Alexa Swinton as Piper and Allison Tolman as Jo in Emergence. Photo: Giovanni Rufino/ABC

The puzzle-box show has had an underwhelming run in the last decade. After Lost defined a high watermark for the genre, it inspired a boom of series that failed with either loud bangs or soft whimpers: FlashForward, Revolution, The Event, Threshold, Invasion, Surface, the list goes on. But the showrunners of ABC’s new drama Emergence have learned from those examples, and are taking a swing at making a big science-fiction mystery series on network TV.

Emergence is a show that initially feels familiar: Allison Tolman plays Jo Evans, a cop who discovers a mysterious young girl named Piper (Alexa Swinton) in the wreckage of a bizarre plane crash. A few episodes after the pilot, though, Jo learns that the girl isn’t really a girl — she’s an artificial intelligence, made for unknown, presumably nefarious purposes.

Co-creators Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters, the producing partnership behind the CW’s Reaper and ABC’s Agent Carter, talked with me about what they’ve learned about mystery-box shows by making Emergence. One of the lessons of previous shows, they explained, is that they shouldn’t be afraid of telling the story, or providing the answers to the mysteries. “I don’t get nervous answering questions,” Fazekas said. “Because I always trust that Tara and I and our writers’ room can come up with more cool shit.”

What made you want to take on a show like this?

Michele Fazekas: So, this is how we decide on what our next project is going to be. We’re cribbing from a process the Disney Imagineers do. They have this really cool way of promoting creativity within groups of people and generating ideas. It’s only marginally like what they do, but we sat down and thought about what movies we loved, what TV shows we loved, what topics we want to talk about. Then you say, “What do these things have in common?” We both loved ET, Close Encounters, Children of Men, Blade Runner, how real people deal with magic in the world.

But it’s also a challenging type of show, right? Many sci-fi mystery shows have not worked as well as they could have.

Fazekas: If it’s a mystery show that’s not done well, you just end up frustrating your audience. You can feel it when they’re just delaying something or stretching something out. I was a big fan of Heroes, that first season on NBC, but it fell into that trap a little bit. So how we approached this show was, “We’re going to have answers.” The other thing is that Tara and I love combining genres. We did it on Agent Carter — it can be dramatic, it can be funny, it can be sci-fi all together. We liked the idea of combining a genre mystery-thriller show with a family.

Tara Butters: And the question was, how do you do something different with a family genre? So the idea that Piper is AI, was like —

Fazekas: — it was almost like raising a special-needs kid.

Butters: Yeah! To have the drama still happen within the family.

It sounds like you’ve been thinking about problems that shows like Emergence have faced — too much delay, making it too much about chasing answers. But those choices then raise their own particular challenges. How do you structure the show to balance the family element with the mystery element?

Butters: That balance is one of the hardest things about the show. You have the mystery storyline, which is your serialized thread, and you need to keep having answers and then changing what the question is. At the end of episode three, you find out what Piper is, but then the question becomes, “What is she for?”

Fazekas: When we pitched the show, we cited a bunch of mistakes people make when making shows like this. First of all, we know the answers. We pitched like three seasons of answers — and then at the end of the third season, you get launched into a whole other story. But it’s also really important to not just make it about turning over those cards. Even at the end of episode three where you learn that this is, somehow, an AI kid. What does that mean?

I’d read this study about AI. They gave people little AI robots, and the robot would talk and ask you questions, and they told people to turn the robot off at night. Partway through the study, the robot starts to say, “Please don’t turn me off because I’m afraid I won’t wake up.” Half the people in the study listened to the robot! Here’s what I love about that: We are already treating machines like they have feelings and self-determination and rights. So when you have a machine who looks like Piper, you’re not going to just throw it in the trash.

That’s the core of what you want the show to be, right? It’s actually about parenting an AI kid. But there’s almost none of that in the first episode or the promo materials. Was it hard to decide when to reveal that idea? 

Fazekas: You have to start at a baseline. What we love about the Spielberg influence is that it’s regular people who something extraordinary happens to. Before you even get into breaking the mystery, it’s really important to be like, “Who are these people?” These are people who I would want to hang out with and watch stories about, without the mystery, because I just find them interesting. I love Jo as a character. I love how Allison plays Jo. But we did want to tell a story about, “Here are normal people. This extraordinary thing happens. How do they react?”

Butters: It’s so polarizing in our [writers’] room as we’re talking about what to do with Piper. You had to give the audience and Jo a couple of episodes of bonding with her, so that when you throw in this really huge idea, you understand why [Jo] still keeps her. The amount of people who’ve said, “No, no, I would hand her over,” it was really interesting. We had to have some believability that they’d have a connection.

What are some of the other big pitfalls of making a show like this? 

Butters: A lot of shows, even procedural dramas, will say, “We want to go home with the cop.” But those stories have a really hard time competing on an interest level, and end up getting cut 90 percent of the time. By having Piper in the house with our family, even though we’re telling stories about about a divorced couple or a sick father, she informs on those stories. I’m as interested in those stories as I am in the greater mystery.

Fazekas: You can’t have these siloed-off worlds where you think you’re going to be jumping back and forth, because one thing is going to potentially feel more interesting than the other. Or it’s going to be, “Why are we talking about normal stuff when there’s a giant conspiracy afoot?” Having connections between the worlds is super helpful. Having answers. Not being afraid to give answers. I don’t get nervous answering questions, because I always trust that Tara and I and our writers’ room can always come up with more cool shit.

Butters: That being said, when we pitched this, we did say that each season should not be more than 13 episodes.

Fazekas: It’s not a 22-episode show. On a network-TV schedule, you start your writers’ room and six weeks later you’re shooting! You have no time, and we’re going to be chasing our tails until the end.

Butters: That’s one of the biggest challenges for us, the network schedule.

What are the biggest debates in the writers’ room?

Fazekas: The “would you keep Piper?” debate is really interesting. People are like, “I would never have that in my house, get rid of it.” And some people are like, “There would be something ethically wrong with just killing it.” I love that debate.

Do you feel like you have a responsibility to the audience to provide answers quickly? In the past, similar shows have had baggage about whether the audience will feel satisfied. 

Fazekas: Are you asking if we feel like we have a responsibility to wrap up the story if we’re canceled?

Yeah.

Fazekas: I don’t. I think that’s a creativity killer. You have to operate like you’re gonna tell plenty of stories. Of course I don’t want to leave people hanging, but I don’t have control over that.

Butters: Our very first show was Reaper for the CW. We left season two on a cliffhanger because we were still hoping for a season three. We did not get one. We later gave an interview and basically said what was going to happen in season three because fans wanted to know. But it was the right thing to do, to leave it on the cliffhanger.

Fazekas: I don’t think it does anyone any good to hedge your bets. Like, “Maybe we’re going to get cancelled, so let’s wrap up the story just in case.” There’s no point to that.

What lessons have other shows taught you? Either shows you’ve watched or shows you’ve worked on?

Fazekas: Tara and I met on The X-Files — we were assistants there — and that was a great education into building stories. [X-Files creator] Chris Carter used to bring me in to type up rewrites for him. He would dictate them to me; he’d be lying on his couch and I’d just type them into his laptop. He would explain to me why he was doing something. He said that everybody has to be smart, even bad guys. It’s a cheat to make the good guys smarter than the bad guys. That was a really good lesson. The other one is making sure you understand at any given point what your character’s point of view is. A really big thing on The X-Files was, “Where is Scully coming from at this point? Where is Mulder coming from?” It needs to be really clear and it needs to be logical.

You cannot make your characters be a slave to plot. The plot has to come from the characters. You can’t say, “I want this to happen, so I want my character to act in this way.” You’re gonna get screwed by that. Tom Schnauz is a writer we’ve hired before who we love — he came out of the Breaking Bad camp and Better Call Saul, and they have this method that they call “brick by brick.” You look at the character and think, “where is this character now, and what would the next thing be that they’d probably do?” It seems so simple, but people forget that.

This is a show that’s created by women, and also led by women onscreen, which is unusual on TV generally and especially for this genre. Is that something you’re aware of? Is it something you try to ignore?

Butters: We’re very aware of it. 

Fazekas: We did do Agent Carter, which was similar.

Butters: It’s more the sci-fi. You know, female lead [or] male lead, I don’t really care. But females looking at AI, if you look at most of the stories that are about AI, it’s very exploitative. It’s very much where humans are the monsters.

Fazekas: We’re basically creating something to murder or rape it.

Butters: When we started talking about looking at AI differently, and how we actually think people will end up treating AI, we put our feelings onto it. That’s why making Piper 10 years old, putting her in this family, that’s a very different point of view. Not that a man couldn’t come up with a similar story, but I do think it is infused from a female perspective.

Emergence’s Showrunners on How to Build a Puzzle-Box Show