At the end of the classic X-Files episode “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” the alien abductees scatter to extract meaning and a sense of purpose from the most traumatic night of their lives. A lonely misfit awaits the little gray men’s return; a hyperconfident fantasist founds a UFO-based cult; and a teen, believing it wasn’t extraterrestrials who stripped her naked against her will but her supposedly handsy date, devotes herself to fighting injustice. In their cases, crisis really is just another word for “opportunity.”
Not so for the abductees — sorry, the experiencers — in the new TBS comedy People of Earth, which premieres tonight with back-to-back episodes. The members of the show’s post-abduction support group, Star-Crossed, aren’t doers, but wallowers. A couple of weeks after hitting a deer with his car, rising-star journalist Ozzie Graham (Wyatt Cenac) profiles Star-Crossed as a hodgepodge of weirdos. The characterization stings, especially when it comes from someone the group considers one of their own.
PTSD would explain why Ozzie keeps flashing back to the night of his car accident. But there’s also the stuff he can’t explain away, like hallucinations of the deer he struck talking to him and suddenly recovered childhood memories of a lizard man watching him play with his toy train. Ozzie could be crazy, but he decides he’s probably an experiencer too. He proposes to Star-Crossed that they do something about these abductions — at the very least, understand them better — and he’s quickly met with rejection. In its smartest move among the mild first four installments, People of Earth makes clear how much the other experiencers need the aliens: They’re the perfect scapegoat, fantasy boyfriend, or whatever other plug for the holes in their lives. Extraterrestrial interruptions, it turns out, are the best excuse for why they haven’t gotten their shit together. Also sharp — and empathetic — is the series’s observation of how strongly “weirdness” correlates with downward mobility. Soon after being sucked up into a UFO, Ozzie loses his car, quits his job, moves upstate, and, well, starts hanging around a bunch of people who believe they’ve met aliens. “I went to college!” he huffs at a new friend (Luka Jones) he met at Star-Crossed, “And now I'm thinking about buying a hot plate. ... That’s not what my life was supposed to be.”
In a terrific scene in the pilot, the Star-Crossed group argues what aliens look like: The most stereotypical nutcase (Brian Huskey) claims they’re reptilian overlords who have taken over the government, while a couple of women (Tracee Chimo and Alice Wetterlund) claim they’ve been visited by beings who look like “Ryan Gosling or a young Paul Newman.” Cleverly, People of Earth decides they’re all right: We see a green man (Drew Nelson), a gray dwarf (Ken Hall), and a Eurotrashy Legolas (Björn Gustafsson) in a silver Star Trek suit, plotting yet another (yawn) alien invasion. Their doofy incompetence adds another layer of tame surreality, when what the show needs to balance Cenac’s sleepy eyes and limited emotional range is some zing and pep and pizzazz. Even with SNL vet Ana Gasteyer as Star-Crossed’s leader and Michael Cassidy as Ozzie’s off-puttingly healthy boss, there’s only so much the performers can do with jokes and story lines that seem to have been made with moderation in mind: We laugh and think and feel — but not too much.
People of Earth has the right instincts. The stories of the group members, especially their downfalls from mainstream society and their inabilities to pick themselves back up, are much more compelling than the impending planetary takeover, which we glimpse in snippets. But the characterizations of the experiencers are a tad too broad, and even if the show is an excellent study of self-pity (which it is), that doesn’t make me want to spend any more time at the Star-Crossed meetings, where the cookies are fresh, the gripes are stale, and the lack of self-awareness is so towering it’s probably visible from space.