Why ‘Resident Alien’ Rises Above Other UFO Comedies

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Why ‘Resident Alien’ Rises Above Other UFO Comedies

You’re an alien. You get sent to Earth with instructions to exterminate humanity. But once you arrive, you’re confronted by unexpected events. Your crash landing kills a doctor who lives part-time in this small, charming Colorado town, so you assume his human form. This also means you can take over his beautiful lakefront cabin. You hole up there for a while learning how to be human via Law & Order marathons, and become a true fan. When you make it into town, you learn that you’re also very fond of human food. After a nurse you end up working with discovers your secret, you become friends. Is it, perhaps, worth sparing humanity, if only for her sake? And… pizza’s? 

This is the premise of Syfy’s Resident Alien, and while it hasn’t lit up the internet with buzz, it has attracted enough of a following to premiere its third season tonight. What have you been missing, and why should you get on board? Here are five good reasons…

Alan Tudyk Is Probably a Literal Genius

Given his vocal range and comedic talent, Tudyk is in high demand for voice-over performances in animated productions. Maybe you haven’t heard him as The Joker in Harley Quinn or as Optimus Prime in Transformers: Earthspark, but you’ve almost certainly heard him as Hei Hei the rooster in Moana. And as great as he is in these roles and dozens of others, he is also very good in roles that, you know, require his entire body to appear on-screen, which may be something fans of his animation work have forgotten since he was a live-action TV series regular — which, before Resident Alien, he hadn’t been since the mid-2010s, when he played Reagan Biscayne on Adult Swim’s Newsreaders.

Here, Tudyk plays Dr. Harry Vanderspeigle — or, rather, “Dr. Harry Vanderspeigle,” since he’s actually an alien who’s come to Earth with speciocidal intentions, and is passing as Harry among the citizens of Patience, Colorado. The role’s specific requirements align perfectly with Tudyk’s gifts. He gets to make big choices with Harry’s uncanny accent and off-center speech style. Already a veteran of mo-cap robot performances, Tudyk gets to conceptualize the physicality of a humanoid alien piloting an unfamiliar body. Embarking on the third season, the viewer can really appreciate not only how Tudyk has made this character three-dimensional, but how Tudyk’s tweaked his portrayal as Harry has learned more about the world, and started to feel he’s part of it. 

Lest this give the impression that humanity is now old hat for Harry, an early episode in the new season does still show him intruding on friends while wearing a robe and tighty-whities, and trying out an elaborate manicure complete with nail piercings. So don’t worry: He’s still weird and funny.

The World-Building Is Effectively Done

This is crucial for a project where we need to believe Harry is being convinced of the value of all human life, basically. Essentially, Asta (Sara Tomko), the nurse who discovers Harry’s secret very early on, is someone we can root for: a kind and generous woman still working through the trauma both of surviving an abusive marriage and her conflicted feelings about placing a daughter in an open local adoption when Asta was still a teenager. Once Harry starts feeling moved to safeguard Asta’s life, we must also believe he can extend a version of that drive in circles that radiate outward from her, encompassing Asta’s friends, family, neighbors, and gradually the whole human race. Eventually, we learn more about the Patience townspeople and, to greater or less degrees, join Harry in believing their lives are worth preserving. (Shooting in a real, and really adorable little town — the charming Ladysmith, British Columbia — helps make Patience feel authentically lived-in.)

Excellent Casting

An endemic problem in productions that shoot in Canada: filling smaller roles with Canadian actors who aren’t great. (I’m Canadian, so I can say that; if you aren’t Canadian, you better not.) Resident Alien is flush with Canadian excellence. There’s Reservation Dogs alums Gary Farmer (as Asta’s father Dan) and Sarah Podemski (as Asta’s cousin Kayla); Diana Bang as reliably hostile clinic nurse Ellen; and Elizabeth Bowen as Liz, the town deputy whose instincts consistently surpass those of her sheriff boss. Extraordinary Americans include Broadway star Corey Reynolds as said sheriff, Mike; and former Silicon Valley alum Alice Wetterlund as D’Arcy, Asta’s best friend since childhood, now a washout Olympic skier with a persistent substance use issue she’s not dealing with.

The world-building celebrated above wouldn’t work if the performances didn’t come from artists whose characters populate a community whose vibrancy could knock an alien off-course from his assigned mission. The best proof of the show’s great casting is that producers are still finding ways to put characters together in previously unseen pairings and seeing how they bounce off each other.

Kids Are Treated with Appropriate Disdain

An early Season One wrinkle came when Harry learned that Max (Judah Prehn), son to Patience Mayor Ben Levi Fiehler, has a rare human ability: Whereas nearly everyone else can perceive Harry only in his human guise, when Max looks at him, he sees what Harry really looks like. Max soon enlists classmate Sahar (Gracelyn Awad Rinke) in his surveillance of Harry; she doesn’t share his ability, but trusts the friend who defended her from school bullies. 

Harry, Max and Sahar eventually find equilibrium in their relationship, but that’s not to say they all become friends. Harry continues to regard Max as an irritant, and most of his interactions with Max and Sahar are filled with verbal abuse. Partly this is because Harry hasn’t been socialized to indulge kids, but mostly, it seems, Harry just doesn’t respect Max and is as aggressive with him as he would be with an adult whose attitude with Harry was as confrontational as Max’s is.

Watch this space, though: We’re not meant to think much time has elapsed since the start of the series, but Rinke and Prehn are really starting to look much older than they did last season. Maybe they need to get abducted to a planet where time passes faster than on Earth so that they come back as the young teenagers they quite visibly are.

There’s Just Enough of an ‘X-Files’ Vibe

Anyone who has watched it for long enough knows that The X-Files started strong but went on way too long. In the early phases of the series, we knew Mulder (David Duchovny) had a sister who’d disappeared under mysterious circumstances he believed to be an alien abduction; as seasons went on, the central conspiracy encompassed alien-human hybrid breeding and clones, bees, parasitic black oil, nanotechnology, carcinogenic alien artifacts — and, of course, government complicity at the highest levels. 

The fun of an alien comedy at this late phase is that it can wink at common alien conspiracy tropes, pursuing the ones that serve the story and joking about others. In later Season Two, the show has larger roles for both alien-fighting Air Force General Eleanor Wright and alien hunter Peter Bach, and cast both of them with well-known faces from sci-fi genre favorites: Linda Hamilton (Terminator) and Terry O’Quinn (Alias and Lost). 

Without spoiling events from Season Three’s earliest episodes, we learn a lot more about the infrastructure underlying Wright’s work and the part she sees Harry playing in it. We also learn more about Patience as a locus of alien activity for decades, and how some of those visitations continue to reverberate in ways characters don’t entirely understand; some of this is portrayed in legitimately creepy and disturbing scenes, but the show’s producers have an excellent instinct for when to pull back and get back to Harry trying to steal a pie from a fellow diner patron without her noticing. Just as we viewers all learned from The X-Files when to bail on a show that has lost its momentum, it seems at least some TV producers learned from it how much mythology is too much.

Syfy’s original shows have, in the past, sometimes seemed like they had a lot of ideas and little sense of how to execute them. Heading into its third season, Resident Alien seems more assured than ever. It’s going to be a while before Galaxy Quest gets that series adaptationResident Alien is already here to delight you.

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