Syfy's new series exercises more creative muscle than your average basic-cable show with a terrific cast and lots of clever ideas.
- 👽 Alan Tudyk perfectly captures Harry Vanderspiegle's contempt for the human race — and also the empathy that comes with his increasing familiarity.
- 👽 The show manipulates familiar TV storytelling tropes very effectively to make them feel fresh and interesting.
- 👽 Mayor Hawthorne's eagerness to recruit Harry (and others) into service without their permission becomes slightly annoying — though it seems intentional.
Resident Alien airs Wednesdays on SyFy.
Resident Alien plays like a mix tape of television narrative staples — featuring a fish out of water main character, an eccentric midwestern town, a murder to be solved, and regularly clashing social niceties that teach everyone involved some important life lessons. In fact, its conventions are so encyclopedic and lived-in that it comes as little surprise that showrunner Chris Sheridan is a longtime writer for Family Guy, one of TV’s great repositories of knowing references. What’s more unexpected is just how funny and effective the series, based on a Dark Horse comic book series of the same name, manages to be. With Alan Tudyk in the lead role, the actor of a million faces — and twice as many accents — finds a role that gives him the chance to use both at the same time, playing an alien pretending to be human after his spaceship crashes on Earth. Meanwhile, a terrific supporting cast including Sara Tomko, Corey Reynolds, Alice Wetterlund and Levi Fiehler generates plenty of fun conflicts and moments of discovery for a character eager to learn the ins and outs of being human — but not for the reasons we might ordinarily expect.
Tudyk plays an extraterrestrial who crashes outside a sleepy Colorado town after his spacecraft gets hit by lightning. Wandering to the nearest cabin, he murders its inhabitant and assumes their identity: Harry Vanderspiegle, a highly-educated doctor who conveniently enough mostly keeps to himself. Harry learns English by watching reruns of Law & Order while attempting (1) to recover the body of his human alter ego, which he accidentally catapulted into the nearby lake; and (2) uncover the whereabouts of his ship, which is disguised with a cloaking device. But when the local physician dies under mysterious circumstances, Sherriff Mike Thompson (Reynolds) recruits him to perform an autopsy at the behest of the town’s overzealous Mayor, Ben Hawthorne (Fiehler). Reluctantly working with physician’s assistant Asta Twelvetrees (Sara Tomko), Harry complies, before Hawthorne asks him to stay on as the town doctor until a suitable replacement can be found.
The work marks Harry’s first face-to-face encounter with humans, providing him with valuable data for his mission, so he agrees. But he soon discovers that there’s more to social interactions than presenting information with an unvarnished bracing honesty, followed by Law & Order’s punctuative “cha-chung,” and quietly begins to learn about his human counterparts by engaging in the rituals they practice — including everything from adopting the proper medical bedside manner to getting drunk. Meanwhile, only one in a thousand humans can see through his disguise, exposing his alien form, and he learns that in this impossibly small town, there is one: Max (Judah Prehn), the Mayor’s ten-year-old son, who quickly becomes his nemesis.
Tudyk plays Harry like he’s restless to get out of the skin suit that he’s adopted as a disguise, and vaguely contemptuous of any effort for the surrounding humans to engage with him. While the choice immediately conjures the “brilliant asshole doctor” cliché of shows like House, his private enjoyment at diagnosing each new affliction, or discovering experiences like booze, bowling or dancing, gives Harry’s condescending, combative disposition a sharply humorous edge. That his biggest foe is a ten-tear-old kid seems doubly appropriate given his often sophomoric rawness with the adults around him, as he plots to murder Max while the boy tries to convince the rest of the world of who he really is.
Conversely, the human characters are probably slightly too eager to invite him into their world given his standoffish behavior (particularly Asta, who’s still grieving the loss of her former mentor), but once the show establishes its character dynamic, the collective chemistry sings: Mayor Hawthorne expects everyone to share his civil-servant altruism to an inappropriate level of invasiveness; Sherriff Thompson brings his own brand of hard-nosed authority, mistrusting everyone equally; Asta is hiding some complicated emotional baggage that oddly enables her to more easily shoulder Harry’s rudeness; and local barkeep D’Arcy Morin (Alice Wetterlund) flirts shamelessly with him because he’s the first “outsider” she’s encountered in far too long, and growing up in a small town is repetitive and boring.
The end of the pilot reveals a few important details about Harry’s abilities, as well as his mission — namely, that he isn’t on Earth to study it, but destroy it. But it’s precisely the way the show juggles all of these familiar elements that makes it work, thanks to Tudyk’s skillful performance, which leads an atmosphere that isn’t trying to be too ingratiating. Premiering on Syfy, it will be interesting to see how readily this show develops a loyal following; but Resident Alien is a remarkably smart and engaging new series that reminds us that even when shows are doing a lot of the stuff that we’ve seen in the past, there’s still a way to execute them in a way that feels fresh.
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