For whatever reason, there are a lot of new genre comedies coming out this TV season. The lesser ones are mining comedy solely from their premise. The good ones, like People of Earth, are using its premise to explore characters.
People of Earth is a show with ambitions that seem much larger than the half-hour comedy slot it fills. In a nutshell, the show is about a support group for people who have experienced alien abductions. It starts with a reporter named Ozzie (Wyatt Cenac) investigating the group for a possible story, only for him to discover that they’re not delusional. There is something alien that’s interfered with their lives. And there’s something weird about Beacon, the town they’ve all ended up in.
That premise sounds like it could be a fun sketch—the crazy people are actually correct!—but the show is determined not to make jokes out of their characters. Revealing that there are aliens right off the bat saves this show. Instead of asking if the members of the group are right, the question is now how right they are. And how much of their accounts have been embroidered by their own personal baggage.
One episode focuses on Richard (Brian Huskey), a shining example of what this show can do. Richard is a true conspiracist, seeing messages from the aliens who captured his wife in everything. And, yeah, we know that he’s right about aliens existing, but he’s not right about everything. It’s heartbreaking to see him turn every piece of bad news into something that’s part of a grander extraterrestrial plan, because sometimes life just sucks and it’s not aliens. It’s baby steps for Richard to accept even a little bit of that. And the show makes his situation funny and tragic at the same time.
At the end of the day, the show’s central conceit isn’t the aliens, although they are hilarious. It’s what the aliens told each member of the group: “You are special.” For the show, what’s special is how each member of the group reacts to what happened to them. Richard creates a full-blown mythology. The group leader, Gina (Ana Gasteyer), rejects the message but embraces helping the group. Ozzie, an investigative journalist, is determined to figure out what’s going on. Another character uses her encounter to deal with a bad marriage and another with a stalled life. A third exercises her desire to gossip and being in charge through the group.
The show’s problem is that it has too much stuff to fit in a half-hour comedy. When I watched (and enjoyed) the pilot at San Diego Comic-Con, it didn’t seem overstuffed; now that I’ve seen screeners of the first four episode, it’s a lot more noticeable, although I still enjoy it. It might have too many characters to serve them all as well as it would like. Or maybe there are too few minutes in an episode. There’s definitely too few episodes overall (the first season tops out at 10).
Ideally, People of Earth would be paired with The Good Place, another new comedy which has a high-concept premise which delves into the backstories of its characters, and has a lot to say about the human condition. Both are great shows that may be reaching a bit too far. And both are rocketing through plot points when you’d think they’d want to draw the mystery out longer. However, in People of Earth, where the strength is the characters, not the story, it’s a good thing.
People of Earth is worth watching. It’s funny and weird and the acting is great. And I want to see it get more space to do all the things it’s trying to accomplish.
People of Earth premieres tonight, 9:00 PM, on TBS.