RESIDENT Alien, the new “sci-fi dramedy/murder mystery” featuring Alan Tudyk in a perfect showcase of his comedic versatility, is a fish-out-of-water tale where fish and water are separated by a gulf of many light-years.
Sure, the concept is not all that new – from Mork And Mindy to ALF to E.T. to V and so many more, extraterrestrials trying to get by in our midst have entertained or terrified us for decades.
The title character of this new series (based on the Dark Horse comic by Peter Hogan and Steve Parkhouse), however, aims to do both.
For one thing, he’s no cuddly ball of fur or genial Robin Williams type, but his true form is a kind of unnerving composite of various extraterrestrial invaders from past fiction – with a stronger jawline to boot.
In his human guise of “Dr Harry Vanderspeigle” (Tudyk), he more or less gets along with most of the citizens in the small town of Patience, Colorado.
But wait. He murdered the real Harry – claiming self-defence, but that would be like The Rock claiming the same against Mini-Me – and assumed not only his identity but his form as well.
He is also here on a sinister mission, but is stranded because his ship has been destroyed and the device he needs to complete his work has been lost.
Fake Harry must now live among the people of Patience while trying to get his job done, and it’s not easy for a being that learned English from Law & Order reruns and gets medical tips from the Internet.
How he comes to be the town doctor is more or less the premise of the first episode – the regular physician is found dead with multiple stab wounds in his throat.
At first, Resident Alien seems to be shaping up as a murder-mystery where Harry and the dead doctor’s assistant Asta Twelvetrees (Sara Tomko) slowly piece together the puzzle surrounding the man’s demise.
Then it veers off in different directions, spending a lot of time on supporting characters’ side escapades, other urgent situations (the real, dead Harry is under a lake that’s frozen over and the spring thaw is coming), and alien Harry’s stumbling about trying to pass for human.
It’s not easy, especially when he meets the only person in Patience who can see him in his true form.
That person happens to be a little boy, Max (Judah Prehn), who soon gets a grip on the terror of seeing an alien walking around and makes it his mission to find out why he’s on Earth.
The first four episodes of Resident Alien call for some patience on the viewer’s part as the show tries to draw all its components into a coherent narrative.
It’s easy to give it that leeway on the strength of Tudyk’s performance alone. He could improvise his way through an entire episode and we would probably still be glued to the TV.
Tudyk completely owns this role, weaving together finely layered expressiveness, physical comedy and verbal gags; and makes us savour the forced, awkward pitch and tone of someone for whom not just English, but human mannerisms and social interaction too, are a (distant) second language.
Still, the show can’t be all about the fish learning to swim in unfamiliar waters. It needs a convincing home to fit in, and some strong chops and writing are needed to come up with the kind of supporting cast worthy of his bravura starring turn.
Series creator Chris Sheridan, a seasoned Family Guy writer, and his fellow showrunners (who include David Dobkin of Into The Badlands and Wedding Crashers, and Dark Horse Entertainment president Mike Richardson) don’t always pull this off.
We get good support in patches – a few standouts like Max and his “co-alien investigator” classmate Sahar (Gracelyn Awad Rinke), the oddball Sheriff Thompson (The Closer’s Corey Reynolds) and his underappreciated deputy Liv Baker (Elizabeth Bowen), and town barkeep D’Arcy (Alice Wetterlund), who initially has a thing for Harry.
When it comes to the more dramatic aspects to anchor the proceedings to Earth, we mainly have Asta and her own little private soap opera, which is not bad for what is essentially by-the-way material.
It’s made watchable by Tomko and her chemistry with Asta’s family members, though its significant presence in the early episodes does crowd out the murder-mystery and Harry’s insidious task.
But it becomes clear by the fourth episode that what we are actually watching could all be a part of Harry’s Borg-in-reverse assimilation into humanity.
As he awakens to (heh) alien concepts like compassion, loneliness and even dreams, it seems like the signs are there for Harry to eventually question his orders and become more sympathetic towards humanity. It might sound predictable but inevitably, an alien cannot be too alien if the show is to have a shot at longevity.
The humanising of Harry seems a long way off, though.
For the moment, despite the odd hiccups and distracting side trips, Sheridan and crew (and of course Tudyk) deliver enough quirkiness and unpredictability to help this series take up permanent residence on our viewing schedule.
Resident Alien airs every Thursday at 11pm on Fox HD (Astro Ch 704/unifi TV Ch 453).
Encounters of the Tudyk kind