CAUTION: This article contains major spoilers for the People of Earth episode “Why Can’t We Be Friends.”
More than anything, People of Earth on TBS is an ensemble comedy series — and a great one at that. The first season established this with the interlocking stories of StarCrossed’s alien
abductees experiencers, and their alien captors/harassers. So far, the second season has carried this torch with Wyatt Cenac (The Daily Show), Ana Gasteyer (Saturday Night Live), Oscar Nunez (The Office) and most of the original cast — along with newcomer Nasim Pedrad (New Girl). As tonight’s game-changer of an episode demonstrated, however, the strength of People of Earth‘s overlapping ensembles will soon be tested. What’s more, the creator’s intended anthology format will also face its first trial run.
Cenac, a veteran stand-up whose acting portfolio has seen a recent boost, will presumably leave the show after “Why Can’t We Be Friends.” That’s because his character, the disgraced investigative reporter Ozzie Graham, literally took a bullet for his former boss and longtime Reptilian observer, Jonathan Walsh (Michael Cassidy). The mysterious Reptilian operative known as “The Assessor” (Paul Lieberstein) found the pair soon after Walsh came clean about his involvement in Graham’s abductions. After taking them into the woods, the operative fired his first shot at Walsh, but Graham leaped into the bullet’s path at the last minute.
On the one hand, killing off a single member of a massive ensemble should shock the characters (and the audience) only for a moment. On the other hand, the advertising campaign preceding the first season leaned heavily on Cenac’s role in the series. This made perfect sense as the comic had only left The Daily Show the previous year, meaning general audiences would likely know his face. So why would the showrunners now decide to kill off one of the program’s most recognizable leads? After all, as creator, writer and executive producer David Jenkins told Uproxx last year, he wrote People of Earth with Cenac in mind. (Cenac said as much during a previous interview.) Jenkins imagined Graham as the show’s “everyman,” or “an update of Bob Newhart in a way,” who would serve as the audience’s narrative introduction to the wider world of alien abductions.
In a more recent interview, Jenkins admits killing off Cenac’s character “is a big move.” However, he adds, “if you can get a wonderful company of actors together on a show that you really want to watch, I feel like the opposite is true,” he says of anyone worrying about killing off the lead. “With really good comedies like Parks and Recreation, and just really good shows in general, the lead can kind of become a peripheral character as the show goes on, allowing other characters to grow. This is a very extreme version of that, but watching the first season and seeing people like Luka Jones and Da’Vine Joy Randolph, you realize just how fun these guys are. I like spending time with them as an audience member, and with the depth of the cast we have, we can create so many different permutations of a show.”
Sure enough, supporting players like Jones and Randolph, who play would-be experiencer Gerry Johnson and actual experiencer Yvonne Watson respectively, have stood out throughout the second season. Yet killing off a major character to highlight their individual stories still feels like — to borrow Jenkins’ own term — “extreme.” Couldn’t Gerry and Yvonne’s budding relationship flourished without offing one of People of Earth‘s chief catalysts? Yes, Jenkins and executive producer Norm Hiscock (King of the Hill, Parks and Recreation) tell us, but then the show would have strayed from it and its lead’s true natures.
Jenkins and Hiscock view People of Earth — now and in the seasons to come — as more of an anthology series than a strict narrative progression following the same characters and stories. “When I originally created the show, I saw it as kind of an anthology,” says Jenkins. “While writing the pilot, I thought it would be fun to do an anthology show with this. Because with science fiction, you can do so many different things. In the second season, we started talking about it more with the cast that we have. We like the idea of using big twists like this, and being able to fully exploit the deep bench of actors and characters we have on the show. That’s something we talked about quite a bit at the beginning, but especially for the second season.”
“I remember even talking about it in the first, too. Treating the show as being fluid, and introducing and reintroducing characters at different points and for different reasons. Even Kurt the Reptilian (Drew Nelson), who was killed in the second episode of the first season, comes back in the fourth episode of season two. We were sort of establishing that idea that things could come and go at anytime,” adds Hiscock. “I remember talking to David in the beginning and saying, ‘What if the first season ended with Ozzie dying?’ It was always something that was out there. It’d been floating around, and when you pitch it and talk about it, that’s when you can start finding the story. Everybody was on board with it, especially since it gives the season an arc and a focus.”
Even if their original plans were to create a series less like The X-Files and more like Fargo, People of Earth has stuck to its original cast and story. As for Graham’s death, audiences may see it as more impromptu than intentional. Unless, Jenkins notes, you consider the character’s skepticism within the wider context of the Reptilians, Whites, Greys and Cubes who populate this world. “The X-Files did a remarkably good job of keeping a certain level of skepticism in a character,” he says. “Scully saw werewolves and was abducted by aliens, but she was still like, ‘I don’t know.’ It worked for her, but we were weary of trying to find ways to keep Ozzie a permanent skeptic.”
Like Scully, Cenac’s inquisitive reporter endeavors to know the truth, but isn’t necessarily ready to accept it once he finds it. This is exactly what happens when Walsh removed his human disguise during their secret rendezvous and revealed his true Reptilian form. The audience by then had already seen Walsh sans mask, but Graham hadn’t, and the shock of seeing the green, scaly face and the pair of yellow, snakelike eyes proved too much. Hence why he proceeded to scream in the alien’s face before the Assessor crashed the party. Even when Walsh confronted Graham with the latter’s old childhood drawing, he still wasn’t totally able to accept it.
“We thought if we weren’t going to try and maintain Ozzie’s skepticism for the entire series, what’s the alternative?” Jenkins asks rhetorically. “Everyone else in the show is a believer except for him, so I think we kind of landed on this approach by asking, ‘What if he does find out the truth? What are the consequences of that?'” In this case, the ultimate effect is death — albeit one not endured in vain. Yet Graham isn’t the only character on People of Earth who has faced such a blunt encounter with the show’s truths, for Kelly Grady (Alice Wetterlund) experienced her own version of the cabin-in-the-woods meeting with Don the White (Björn Gustafsson) in last week’s “Always a Day Away.”
Don has been ignoring his duties while attempting to forge a relationship with Kelly, one of the StarCrossed members he personally abducted. They absconded to Iceland in the first season finale, but abruptly returned on separate flights when Kelly discovered the hospital-bound woman Don had introduced her to wasn’t actually his mother. (She didn’t speak English, which helped his lie immensely.) When they run into each other at the karaoke bar where the group is trying to distract FBI Special Agent Alex Foster (Pedrad), Don took Kelly aside and admitted who he truly was. Considering the trauma she and other StarCrossed members have evidently faced, she freaked out, forcing Don to use a device to wipe her memory.
This happened several times during a surprisingly emotional scene that, when Don realized he ultimately couldn’t tell Kelly the truth, ended with her thinking they had simply broken up. “Each character reacts differently. We always played Ozzie as this guy who had to see proof. If he saw proof, then he could believe it. He had to hold it. He was a journalist. But you can play that for a certain amount of time,” explains Hiscock. Jenkins couldn’t agree more, noting that “it’s exhausting as a viewer (and a writer) to continue to invent ways to say, ‘He’s seen aliens, but how do we keep him skeptical?'” Besides, just because StarCrossed’s members believe they’ve been abducted by aliens doesn’t mean they will accept seeing an actual alien. Their reactions, as Hiscock notes, will vary greatly — and could very well inform the anthology format he and Jenkins are hoping to pursue.
People of Earth airs Mondays at 10:30pm ET/PT on TBS.