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Resident Alien Blends Humor, Heart into Effective Escapism

At its best, SyFy’s “Resident Alien” reminded me of the folksy charm of “Northern Exposure,” one of my favorite dramedies of all time. The writing isn’t quite of that caliber—it too often goes for easy character beats instead of nuanced storytelling—but this is a consistently likable show at a time when people could use something comfortable and easy. And there’s enough talent and potential in it that it could still develop into something even richer and deeper. It works from a premise that allows a bit of everything from sci-fi to murder mystery to fish-out-of-water comedy, and seems primed to be a needed hit for SyFy, a throwback to other basic cable dramedies that served as comfort food for millions.

“Resident Alien” is based on the comic book of the same name by Peter Hogan and Steve Parkhouse, published by Dark Horse Comics starting in 2012 (and still running). Alan Tudyk plays an alien visitor who crash lands in a small Colorado mountain town on a mission and ends up forced to take the place of a reclusive doctor on the edge of town, calling himself Harry Vanderspeigle. When the town's actual doctor ends up murdered, Harry is brought down from the hills and learns how to behave like a human while also investigating the crime with the assistance of the dead doctor’s nurse named Asta (Sara Tomko) and the town Sheriff (Corey Reynolds).

At first, it feels like “Resident Alien” might be a mystery-of-the-week show in which an awkward alien disguised as a man played by Alan Tudyk has to solve crimes and let me just say that I would totally watch that show every week. Somewhat surprisingly, the first few episodes don’t really dig into this potential, sometimes lazily pushing along their characters in a way that’s more primetime soap than it needs to be. Even “Northern Exposure” had more standalone stories wrapped up in individual episodes than “Resident Alien,” which basically uses its first few episodes to tell a continuous story about Harry’s attempts to merge in with normal human society. He struggles with simple human concepts like handshakes and decorum while also searching for something he lost in the crash landing and dealing with the fact that there’s a kid in town who can see his true alien form. There’s a better version of all of this that has a bit more urgency, both in individual episodes and as a whole.

But despite the frustrating structure, “Resident Alien” is an easy hangout series thanks in large part to its cast. Tudyk nails the oddity of an alien who has to learn to deal with not only human behavior but the emotions and connections that come with it, things that aren’t really a concern for his species. He basically learns how to act like a human being from watching cable TV and Tudyk captures the character’s blend of awkward fascination with his predicament without going too broad. It’s a great physical performance, perfectly calibrated in a way that makes it believable that the locals would pause but also then brush of his oddity as a personality quirk. Most of the rest of the cast is forced to play straight man to Tudyk’s eccentricities, but they all do so admirably, especially Tomko and Alice Wetterlund, who almost steals the show as a charming bartender named D’arcy (especially in her scenes with Tudyk). It’s when the show contrasts fully realized and believable characters like D’arcy against the ridiculous concept at its center that it’s at its best. (Less so when it gets surprisingly soapish in some of its developments, including a secret baby.)

If “Resident Alien” can fix the slack narrative that sometimes derails its folksy charm, it could be a reliable hit for years to come. Ignoring the occasional missteps as it sets up its world and their characters, it’s a show that goes down easy at a time when it feels like audiences are looking for shows that don’t always need to challenge them with realism in every episode (witness the massive appeal of “Ted Lasso”). It probably won’t play in constant rotation like Harry’s favorite cable staple “Law & Order,” but you never know.

Four episodes screened for review.  

 

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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