People of Earth Is Smarter Than It Is Funny

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L-R: Luka Jones and Wyatt Cenac in People of Earth. Photo: Jan Thijs/TBS

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.

That tongue-in-cheek adage is practically the guiding principle of People of Earth, the new TBS series executive produced by Conan O’Brien and Greg Daniels of The Office, starring Wyatt Cenac as a journalist who becomes entangled with the members of a support group for alien abductees. Actually, you’re not supposed to call them abductees. You should refer to them as “experiencers.” “Calling someone an abductee is a lot like slut shaming,” one of the members of StarCrossed, that support group, tells Cenac’s character Ozzie. Duly noted.

What’s also notable about this comedy, which is more clever and thought-provoking than it is gut-busting, is its focus on the notion that there’s something not quite right about our world and it’s making some folks unstable. Although, to be fair, some of them only needed the gentlest poke of a finger to be flung off the proverbial ledge. Like certain episodes of Black Mirror and, to an even greater extent, the recently canceled Braindead, which also dabbled in the extraterrestrial, People of Earth simultaneously speaks to how mental or emotional struggles can lead to institutional mistrust, while confirming that such mistrust may be completely founded.

There are indeed aliens among us and some aliens really do kidnap humans and those weird, occasionally bulbous-headed beings may not have the truest of aims. People of Earth confirms all of this in the first episode, which debuted, along with episode two, on Halloween night and can now be streamed on the TBS website. But the pilot and subsequent installments also reveal that the individuals who regularly gather in a Beacon, New York, church to discuss their alien encounters are dealing with plenty of non-E.T.-related problems, including aborted career paths and failed marriages that may or may not have gone sour because of all that little green man talk.

Ozzie (Cenac) first encounters StarCrossed while writing a story about the group for the glitzy Manhattan magazine that employs him. He's initially a skeptic, but after he crashes his car into a deer, he starts having hallucinations that involve talking deer. When he learns that collisions with animals are often used to mask memories of alien abductions, Ozzie starts to think there might be a place for him in StarCrossed. His relationships with these alien-believing misfits, and his desire to get to the bottom of these outer space cases, starts to deepen.

As realized by creator and showrunning newcomer David Jenkins, People of Earth deserves praise more for its high concept and intelligence than for its ability to generate laughs. It’s the kind of show that doesn’t make you LOL so much as chuckle softly while admiring its subtext. Cenac is known for being an understated comic, and he plays everything super-understated here. The more overtly humorous moments generally revolve around Richard (Brian Huskey), a VP at a “high-tech company” (they manufacture Ethernet cable jacks) who’s so consumed by alien conspiracy theories that he can’t seem to understand why his wife (Transparent’s Amy Landecker) wants to divorce him, and the actual aliens themselves, whose relationships contain as much dysfunction as the ones between the humans.

What’s smart about this show — enough to make me say that it’s worth watching — is the way it critiques the tendency to make assumptions about others. The more we learn about the members of StarCrossed, the more clear it becomes that these aren’t just lunatics telling cockamamie stories that sound an awful lot like the stories in this SNL sketch. (Given the reference at one point to Ryan Gosling, I’m pretty sure the People of Earth writers are quite familiar with that sketch.) All of them, including their therapist leader, Gina (Ana Gasteyer), have backstories and a desire to be seen and heard that shouldn’t be dismissed because they’re “experiencers.” In ways that aren’t heavy-handed, this series is saying that people who might sound “crazy” — and, to stretch the point even more broadly, residents of what’s broadly considered small-town America — may not be any crazier than anyone else. Alien abductees: They’re just like us, you guys.

When the aliens who probe and study the humans of Beacon first make contact, they tend to issue a warning: “Don’t get weird.” Another thing they convey to each and every body snatched: “You are special.” Those two details underline the main thing I like about People of Earth: It’s a pretty odd show about how damaging it is to simultaneously tell people they are unique while forbidding them from being so strange that they rupture the status quo. “Be weird, but don’t get too weird,” the aliens are saying. And the people of People of Earth are responding by being as weird as they want to be.