Four episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
It doesn’t take long for TBS’s new half-hour sci-fi comedy/drama to get weird. In fact, it’s before the end of the show’s pilot, when one of its alien denizens – which might be a hallucination, or might be an actual reptilian invader bent on humanity’s destruction – appears out of nowhere in the car of series lead Ozzie (Wyatt Cenac) and asks, “don’t get weird, okay?”
That’s one of many played-straight oddities that nets People of Earth its biggest moments of high concept laughs, and more often than not (in the first four episodes made available for review, anyway), the show is far more hit than miss. There’s a straightforward slant to its story – bigwig New Yorker slums it in a small town and quickly becomes invested in its peculiarities – but what People of Earth succeeds at firstly is doling out pieces of information at a satisfying clip, while balancing an inconspicuous tone with an ever-increasing, perfectly baffling, very, very weird plot.
It starts with a talking deer and proceeds in oddness from there, with New York journalist Ozzie assigned to the small town of Beacon in order to cover a local support group called “StarCrossed,” each member of which believes they’ve been abducted by aliens. These “experiencers” – “Calling someone an ‘abductee’ is a lot like slut-shaming,” stay-at-home mom Chelsea (Tracee Chimo) informs Ozzie – all pool together their knowledge and arrive at some form of truth: there are three races of aliens as far as they can tell, but they can’t exactly figure out what any of them want.
Besides reptilians, there are short, stumpy “greys,” who visited farmer Ennis (Daniel Stewart Sherman), and “whites,” who look something akin to a nine-foot tall, albino Ryan Gosling, according to funeral home receptionist Kelly (Alice Wetterlund). Ozzie doesn’t believe a word of it for a second, until he realizes that a recurring nightmare he’s having – including a particularly chatty deer he ran over on an abandoned road heading into Beacon – might be a cover memory implanted by the coterie of aliens to mask his abduction. Either way, Ozzie can’t stand his douchey boss Jonathan (Michael Cassidy) back in New York, so he decides to delve even deeper into the potential otherworldly shenanigans going on in Beacon as an escape from an otherwise boring existence.
People of Earth‘s set-up is quirky cliché, Ozzie the straight man in the middle of colorful weirdos, but once the show leans into its bold-faced mission statement and introduces a workplace comedy subplot of sorts concerning the frenemy rivalry between a trio of intergalactic travelers, things really pick up. On a ship orbiting Earth, sardonic Jeff the Grey (Ken Hall), bossy Kurt the Reptilian (Drew Nelson), and butt-of-every-joke Don the White (Björn Gustafsson) navigate a directive that appears to center around gathering information on the human race, with varying degrees of success once StarCrossed becomes tangled up in their plan for apparent world domination. The three have brilliant chemistry, infusing the show with a dry, bordering-on-cruel humor that always pulls back at just the right moment, and Hall’s tiny grey alien Jeff might be one of the funniest scene-stealers of 2016.
Ozzie’s quest through each group member’s past also sets People of Earth off into some nicely dramatic territory. Everyone in StarCrossed, from toll booth operator Gerry (Luka Jones) to group leader Gina (Ana Gasteyer), is taking advantage of their alien encounters to mask an uncomfortable, painful past; in a neat emotional trick, it’s assumed these people find it easier to admit to a slice of insanity than come to terms with any actual tangible piece of their past.
The show’s most intriguing aspect is that it plays with the idea of whether or not these people are readily manufacturing events to suit their needs, or if they actually believe they were abducted. That psychological twistiness doesn’t last long in People of Earth‘s literal-minded story, but the show never loses sight of the idea that “craziness” exists in all of us, it’s just sometimes easier to project it onto those whose mindset is far removed from our own.
All the same, People of Earth thrives in weirdness. It’s nice to have some type of dramatic backbone to support everything, but the show is in peak form when, for example, lizard-man Kurt tells Jeff to “eat a dick” after Jeff mocks Kurt’s inability to successfully keep experiencers asleep during their abduction. Actually, Jeff’s species looks so much like a part of the male genitalia, that the fact that People of Earth never actually acknowledges it is a running joke in and of itself. Executive producer Greg Daniels’ hands feel most present here in the workplace shenanigans between Kurt, Jeff, and Don, helping showrunner David Jenkins craft interoffice conflict and strife, even on a smaller scale, as Daniels did on The Office and Parks and Recreation.
If the human characters feel less interesting in comparison, it doesn’t hurt the show for very long. Cenac has the half-lidded, drowsy personality that somehow makes everything in the show even funnier and weirder, and he eventually makes for an endearing foil with Jones, whose character Gerry isn’t so much an experiencer as a wannabe experiencer.
With a group this large, some characters get shortchanged, particularly Margaret (Nancy Lenehan) and Yvonne (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), while other less interesting personalities rise in prevalence, especially one-joke reptilian-obsessor Richard (Brian Huskey). But even he gets an amusing backstory about his ex-wife, who’s either missing on an alien spaceship, or avoiding him on Earth after a failed marriage. Like the other members of the group, Richard’s inability to disassociate reality from self-made fiction is oddly fun to watch, particularly set against a backdrop that slowly confirms the insane aspects of StarCrossed’s experiences with everyday normalcy.
The more ludicrous People of Earth becomes, the better, because otherwise the show is pretty boilerplate. It’s a journalist detective story, a band-of-weirdos underdog tale, and a conspiracy saga rolled into 20 minute episodes, and it follows the tenets of each genre it tackles with little attempt at straying into its own cosmic path.
That’s okay, because it does what it does well, and where it does feel original and worthwhile is in its total confidence to be unusual without trying to excuse its unusualness for a broader audience. Because of that, People of Earth won’t be for everyone, but when it hits the sweet spot of restrained humor set against a heightened concept, its intended audience will find a lot to dissect here.
Endearing and offbeat, People of Earth is easy to love and laugh at because it skillfully marries a ridiculously out-there premise with a tone and main character that are hilariously down-to-earth.