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It’s hard not to fall for the charms of TBS’ newest comedy, the Wyatt Cenac-led People Of Earth, about a support group for survivors of alien abduction: It manages to be sweet, smart, quirky, story-strong and funny all at the same time with what appears to be minimal effort.
That’s a real coup. Especially since it was only natural to wonder how much material could be wrung from the premise – the whole “is there really a show here?” thing that critics often ask.
RELEASE DATE Oct 31, 2016
Oh, there’s a show all right. And I loved it.
Executive produced by Conan O’Brien and Greg Daniels (The Office, Parks and Recreation, King of the Hill) and created by David Jenkins, People of Earth feels wholly original and distinctive, thanks in large part to Jenkins’ writing, a superb cast and a performance by Cenac that should bust him out bigger than ever; the actor’s winning, laconic style is perfectly suited to the role of a journalist used to more hard-hitting news stories but who gets assigned a click-bait piece on this group in Beacon — and, well, his trip up there and his discoveries get weird real quick.
It turns out, “Don’t get weird, okay?” is one of the things aliens — in whatever form they take — say to humans when they reveal themselves.
For Ozzie Graham (Cenac), a New York journalist, the group seems pretty clearly to be a hodge-podge of weirdos (“a weirdo circus,” in fact) and conspiracy theorists until, well, a talking deer tells him not to “get weird” just as he’s about to hit a deer. Which he does.
Then wakes up. Then keeps the talking deer part to himself, dismissing it until the deer keeps popping up. And talking to him. At that point, Ozzie is perhaps thinking the weirdo circus might, against his better judgment, be on to something. And when his boss Jonathan (Michael Cassidy) at Glint Enterprises – a huge online site – does something he shouldn’t, Ozzie decides to quit and move to Beacon to solve this puzzle.
What immediately makes People of Earth work is you can tell that Jenkins, Daniels and O’Brien had detailed talks about the characters and the roles they would play not only in the support group, known as StarCrossed, but in Beacon itself. A show has to move beyond its main character eventually and if the writers haven’t thought out the full extent of that shift, often a show will start shaping its ensemble characters haphazardly.
Having seen the first four episodes (and immediately wanting more), I found that the StarCrossed bunch starts to pop pretty quickly. The group was co-founded by Gina (Ana Gasteyer), a New York psychiatrist whose practice plummeted after some bad advice she gave to a patient. She relocated to Beacon, which we quickly learn is a hot-bed of alien abduction and general alien mystery. The other co-founder is Gerald “Gerry” Johnson (Luka Jones), a self-described “alientologist” and pothead whose twist in this series is perfect; he’s never been abducted, even though he’s desperate to be, leaving him as the theory expert with no practical experience, which galls him.
Gerry can tell you all about the alien pecking order: the Reptilians, who are lizard people planning Earth’s imminent invasion; the Greys, big-headed, three-fingered, black-eyed aliens whose grumpiness when it comes to studying abducted humans, as expressed by Jeff the Grey (Ken Hall), is one of the best and funniest running jokes on People of Earth; and finally the Whites, who appear to be blatant rip-offs of Legolas and the arrow-shooting Elves of Lord Of the Rings, which is absurdly funny both as a visual joke and when it comes to how Don the White (Bjorn Gustafsson) explains human emotions.
StarCrossed is rounded out by Richard (Brian Huskey), who blames everything on the Reptilians and belittles those whose “alien experience” happened with a Grey or White; Kelly (Alice Wetterlund), who has commitment issues with people and jobs (she’s a part-time temp); Yvonne (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), a postal worker who is mostly annoyed to be around “crazy” people; Chelsea (Tracee Chimo), whose experience was mostly sexual, and which she enjoys describing; and Margaret (Nancy Lenehan), whose story best illustrates the “don’t get weird” alien mantra and who, as we will learn later, is in a lot of different support groups.
Everyone in StarCrossed gathers at a Catholic church that is otherwise barely attended and run by Father Doug (Oscar Nunez), whose faith and vows (thanks to Chelsea) will be tested repeatedly.
It’s a big cast but well-defined, and as we learn snippets about each person, People of Earth becomes increasingly well-constructed and interesting.
I’m already pining for a spin-off series with Jeff the Gray just constantly complaining about how crappy everyone else is at their job, swearing and getting annoyed at stupid human behavior. (We get to glimpse Jeff at work as each backstory of the StarCrossed group members is illustrated and, well, Jeff’s right – things are pretty sloppy at the shop).
This is a really fun and absurd little comedy that gets better and more lovable as you watch. Cenac is really something here – his barely expressed annoyances in one scene rising to freaked-out screaming about deer in another. His slackerish demeanor and controlled emotions oddly ground the crazy material around him. Gasteyer gets one of her best roles yet and leans into it as the episodes go forward. Jones is the immediately likeable standout amongst the Beaconites because he’s both super needy and really passionate (that he also happens to be right about most alien things is a good joke). But really, this whole cast is built to last as their stories unfold, which gives me confidence that People of Earth has the tools to capture an audience long-term.
Cast: Wyatt Cenac, Ana Gasteyer, Alice Wetterlund, Oscar Nunez, Nancy Lenehan, Luka Jones, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Ken Hall, Tracee Chimo, Brian Huskey, Bjorn Gustafsson, Michael Cassidy
Created by: David Jenkins
Executive producers: Conan O’Brien, Greg Daniels
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