The new Syfy dramedy Resident Alien seems like it ought to be a very simple show. Perhaps in a good way.
The title is, of course, a play on legal terminology referring to lawfully registered immigrants residing in the country. Make that alien a literal extraterrestrial and you have a really clean premise for a show, one that isn’t exactly revolutionary. From Roswell to V to Alien Nation to ALF to The Neighbors, the alien-as-immigrant allegory is familiar and resilient stuff.
Why, then, does Resident Alien make it look so darned complicated? Even with Peter Hogan and Steve Parkhouse’s Dark Horse comic as source material, the TV incarnation of Resident Alien struggles to find a consistent tone, layers in more artificial storytelling obstacles than the premise requires and only occasionally figures out how to use its appealing cast. Through seven episodes sent to critics, there were at least two or three points where I scribbled in my notes, “Wait, THAT’S the show” and found myself sucked into Resident Alien only to have the series lurch off in a different direction.
Alan Tudyk plays an alien explorer with a very particular and nefarious mission on Earth. He crashes his space craft, loses the device associated with his evil purpose and finds himself in a remote Colorado town, where he’s able to occupy a doctor with the consistently amusing name of “Dr. Harry Vanderspeigle.” Harry isn’t actually a doctor in town. He’s just a completely random doctor who owns a house on a lake, but when the actual local doctor is found dead, Harry is drafted into a temporary position treating every one of the town’s various conditions, both physical and psychological.
It makes limited sense, but as Alien-Harry, who learned English from Law & Order reruns, puts it: “The town doctor was murdered. Now I am the town doctor because I am alive.”
That ought to be all of the complications that the show requires. There was a stretch between the third and fourth episodes in which it felt like Resident Alien was settling into a rhythm as, basically, Northern Exposure but if Joel were an alien instead of Jewish. The community of Patience, Colorado, is full of likable residents including Asta Twelvetrees (Sara Tomko), a Native American nurse who worked for the old doctor, and local bartender and former Olympic skiing hopeful D’Arcy (Alice Wetterlund). Not everybody in Patience is interesting; the local mayor (Levi Fiehler) and his wife (Meredith Garretson) are a bore, but they have a son (Judah Prehn’s Max) who is the only person in town able to see through the illusion of the alien’s Harry-shaped flesh-suit.
You could make an entire show about Alien-Harry trying to pass himself off as human. He searches the mountains for the device that will allow him to eradicate humanity as, all the while, Max attempts to expose his true identity. Easy! But Resident Alien lacks confidence in that potential. There’s the mystery of the original doctor’s death, which I didn’t manage to care about for a single second, though Corey Reynolds and Elizabeth Bowen occasionally garner chuckles as the town’s strict, pug-loving sheriff and his generally overlooked deputy. Then there are two bland characters trying to track down the alien; they’re in multiple episodes and I guess they’re with the military in some way, but only one of them even has a name so far as I know, and neither has a personality.
All of these elements — plus the arrival of another thinly introduced drama-inciting character in the fourth episode — give Resident Alien at least three or four seasons worth of plot unspooling with limited momentum over less than one season, each requiring a different kind of pacing and sensibility and none really presented well.
The infuriating thing is that I would watch Tudyk play this part and basically nothing else would even be required. The astonishingly versatile comic character actor could, in a different reality, have a borderline Jim Carrey-type career and this is possibly the meatiest, most central TV role he’s ever had. Playing a character who’s struggling to master a language, the mechanics of a new body and the myriad niceties of human interaction, Tudyk is having a field day. What he’s doing is indeed so creative that it’s disappointing when series adapter Chris Sheridan can’t think of anything better for him than fundamentally icky and unfunny gags like, “Alien-Harry performs a pelvic exam on the town trollop.”
Tudyk’s performance is carefully calibrated and generally improves on the material that surrounds it, plus it’s a studied contrast to the actors he’s teamed best with. Tomko and Wetterlund are both quieter and more natural, with the former contributing the show’s emotional undercurrent — especially in scenes with Gary Farmer as Asta’s father — and the latter delivering more organic ribald humor. Together, Tomko and Wetterlund are a good duo and there are long stretches where they seem to be off on their own show. Also generating some humor with Tudyk are Prehn and especially Gracelyn Awad Rinke, who really elevates that storyline as Sahar, a Muslim girl whose own outsider status helps her believe Max’s claims about Alien-Harry.
The character of Sahar, whose hijab goes unremarked-upon, is one of several places Resident Alien shows a beyond-expectations level of nuance. Tomko and Farmer’s characters are peppered with a few Native American details that I appreciated in their sort-of specificity and in how they continue the recent hot streak for Snotty Nose Rez Kids on TV soundtracks (see The CW’s Trickster). Again, in the Northern-Exposure-with-an-Alien version of this show, Alien-Harry could spend years meeting quirky Patience residences and experiencing enhanced understanding of humanity, getting in the way of his plans to decimate the planet.
I can’t rule out that you’ll be interested in the investigation into the murder of a character we never saw alive. Or the two basically unnamed feds (and one big-name guest star) looking for the alien. Or the needless jumbling of the timeline throwing in sometimes two or three different flashbacks per episode with minimal returns. I’m all for Tudyk getting a star vehicle at any time, but after seven episodes I’d grown tired of wading through the half-dozen plotlines I didn’t care about for the one or two that I did.
Cast: Alan Tudyk, Sara Tomko, Corey Reynolds, Alice Wetterlund, Levi Fiehler, Elizabeth Bowen, Judah Prehn
Creator: Chris Sheridan from the Dark Horse comic series
Airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Syfy starting January 27.