For a show whose central premise involves alien abduction, People of Earth spends most of its time dealing with, well, people. Specifically, it focuses on the eight individuals who congregate at a Catholic church to take part in StarCrossed, a support group for alien
abductees experiencers hosted by ex-psychiatrist Gina Morrison (Ana Gasteyer). However therapeutic these sessions may be, everyone’s individual motives and opinions often appear nonsensical to anyone on the outside. From Richard Schultz’s (Brian Huskey) alleged encounter with the nefarious Reptilians to Kelly Grady’s (Alice Wetterlund) emotional evening with a peaceable White, it’s all a bit too silly for reporter Ozzie Graham (Wyatt Cenac) to accept. Not just because they’re all talking about shape-shifting aliens disguised as American presidents, but also because they can’t agree on what these experiences mean.
“The Reptilians are the ones you have to watch out for, Ozzie. The others are inconsequential,” says Richard, sparking a flurry of angry responses, like Yvonne Watson (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) telling him he “can’t say stuff like that,” and Margaret Flood (Nancy Lenehan) exclaiming, “Take your head out of your ass!” Meanwhile, Ozzie offers a half-assed smile and thanks the group for their time. Cue the title card and the realization that, nearly four minutes into the 23-minute premiere, none of the trailer’s promised aliens have appeared. For some impatient viewers, this may seem too much to forgive before pressing on with the remaining 19 minutes.
Then again, creator David Jenkins and executive producer/director Greg Daniels didn’t set out to craft a replica of The X-Files. Nor were they interested in reproducing the same workplace dynamic Daniels and Michael Schur encountered on The Office and perfected with Parks and Recreation. Jenkins instead wrote something wholly original with People of Earth — a single-camera comedy inspired by its predecessors but free to be its own weird creation. Or as Jenkins tells us, an attempt to grasp “that mystery tone” The X-Files fans know and love, and “pay service to the genre” advanced by Daniels and Schur. The result is something comedy and science fiction fans alike may come to adore: an odd, hybrid blend of deadpan humor, ensemble comedy, and interconnected plots about multiple alien species abducting human subjects for unknown purposes.
On paper this all seems a little weird, but as one of the pilot’s most oft-repeated lines cautions, “Don’t get weird.” Especially if you’re a fan of Daniels’s particular brand of television comedy, The X-Files, or both. If you’re familiar with the classic 1996 X-Files episode “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space'” penned by Darin Morgan (whose “Mulder And Scully Meet the Were-Monster” gave the recent revival with its only decent entry), you’re in for a treat. More than anything, People of Earth feels like a series-length continuation of Morgan’s sensibilities.
Consider the primary drive behind People of Earth‘s complex plot: Ozzie’s recurring dreams about a car accident and the deer he may or may not have hit. While covering StarCrossed for a ludicrous “clickbait” assignment from his boss, Jonathan Walsh (Michael Cassidy), the intrepid reporter discovers possible connections between the group’s experiences and his own. Sure, their discussions of “interplanetary body image issues and snake presidents” aren’t nearly as important (or as sane) as member Gerry Johnson (Luka Jones) suggests, but the deeper Ozzie digs, the more he remembers about what happened to him, his car, and the deer.
Ozzie’s waking nightmares include a talking deer and his coworkers having “deer heads,” or the onscreen depictions of the StarCrossed members’ abduction experiences. What results is a show that starts like a typical comedy ensemble and ends with Morgan-esque flavors of The X-Files and Millennium‘s funnier entries. Besides, where else can you find Parks and Recreation-like banter among several characters adapted for scenes involving an alien abduction support group, or one alien telling another to “eat a dick” while their human captive looks on?
Beyond the first episode, People of Earth transforms into a pseudo-workplace comedy/mystery comprised of two intertwined dioramas: StarCrossed, and the three aliens — Kurt the Reptilian (Drew Nelson), Jeff the Grey (Ken Hall) and Don the White (Björn Gustafsson) — whose enterprise brought them together. At first these circles hardly ever overlap in the show’s present, but with each clue Ozzie and his friends uncover — despite interference from Gasteyer’s neurotic Morrison and StarCrossed’s unwilling host, Father Doug (Oscar Nuñez) — the more layers the story unravels.
The rapport developed by People of Earth‘s lead and supporting players shines through, resulting in an overwhelmingly successful group dynamic highlighting collective and individual performances alike. Especially Cenac, whose outstanding turn as the skeptical Ozzie — a character Jenkins describes as “an update of Bob Newhart in a way” — offers viewers a kind of introductory “everyman” to the wider world of close encounters, the people who claim to have them, and the aliens who perform them.
People of Earth premieres Monday, October 31 at 9 p.m. ET on TBS. Until then, here’s a preview.