There are moments in “The Crossing” that make it feel as though it’s from a slightly earlier era — specifically the “Lost” era when networks were clamoring to find a newer, shiner science-fiction mystery for viewers to obsess over. And “The Crossing,” which is also built around a group of survivors who wash up on the beach (and which also has a time-travel hook), does want to be that show, but it might not have the chops to survive long enough to build a following.
To its credit, “The Crossing” wastes no time getting into the core of the premise, immediately rushing Sheriff Jude Ellis (Steve Zahn, in a rare dramatic role) to the scene. What he thought was one body turns out to be dozens — some dead, some alive — with no lifejackets, and no sign of a capsized boat. When the Department of Homeland Security, led by Emma Ren (Sandrine Holt), arrives to take over the investigation and begins questioning everyone, the mystery only deeps. The survivors claim to be refugees seeking asylum from a dangerous war at home — but their home is America, 180 years into the future.
This fast pace works for “The Crossing,” and not just because a crowded drama landscape demands that pilots establish themselves quickly or risk losing viewers’ attention, but also because there is a lot to get through. There are a number of characters now populating the small Oregon town of Port Canaan — the townspeople are already curious about the commotion, so we’ll surely see how they interact with their survivors, and government investigators have set up shop, too. With so much information to be deployed, it’s smart to introduce time travel quickly and vaguely (“Someone had discovered something … a process,” one refugee explains), rather than letting it linger.
This move allows “The Crossing” to divide its time between its two core missions: Dropping the crumbs of other mysteries and setting up storylines that’ll be explored throughout the relatively short 11-episode season. It soon emerges that these people aren’t just fleeing a war but a full-fledged genocide. What’s more, in the future, genetic engineering has resulted in a not-so-creatively named “APEX” group of people who have heightened senses and abilities. One of them, Reece (a quietly intense Natalie Martinez), has also traveled back but landed elsewhere, separated from her daughter Leah (Bailey Skodje), leaving us to wonder: Are there others like her in the refugee mix?
Despite all of the intrigue, many of the non-sci-fi conflicts within “The Crossing” feel predictable. We’ve seen the small town sheriff vs. the big-city detective plenty of times before, and Jude and Emma don’t add much to the trope –they just fall into their natural resentful roles. She shuts him out and keeps him at arms’ length; he’s dogged and insists on investigating anyway.
We’ve also seen characters like Jude before: a man with a tortured past, estranged from his family, who moved to a small town to “put things back together.” We don’t know the catalyst for the move but, truth be told, we also may not care. It does help that Zahn is a generally likable actor, though his character needn’t have been quite so grave for the entire hour.
It’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that “The Crossing” sets up a makeshift family, hints at an unlikely romance, and starts to follow a shaky alliance. It’s tough to tell if any of these plots will land — ABC only sent out the pilot episode to critics — but for now, they’re all overshadowed by bigger questions.
“The Crossing” is certainly a show full of mysteries. “You can’t imagine what will become possible,” refugee Caleb (Marcuis Harris) tells Homeland Security, and we’re not sure if it’s a promise or a threat. “The Crossing” has fun crafting this make-believe future, slowly teasing out details through casual conversation (food is different in the future, for one), and then dropping the bigger bombs in a montage of interviews.
A sci-fi show like “The Crossing,” airing now, serves as a cautionary tale of sorts. When refugees talk about this future war, the increasing class divide, and an impending “holocaust,” they’re also talking to us. If we take heed, “The Crossing” implies, maybe we can find a way to save ourselves.
The worry, however, is whether or not a series that’s built on so many questions can endure long enough to give satisfactory answers. Surely, now that we’ve become more accustomed to marathon viewing, many people will want to let episodes pile up on the DVR before diving in, rather than waiting week to week for new developments. “The Crossing” may have been perhaps a better fit for USA or Syfy, networks that let entire seasons play out and find increased viewership via streaming. ABC may not be quite as patient, and the lofty goals of “The Crossing” could end up being both a blessing and a curse.