I like to imagine the 2016 fall comedy landscape as a turf war from West Side Story. On one side, the dramedies: Transparent, Atlanta, One Mississippi, etc. Grounded stories examining different facets of society with an unflinching eye. These shows just play it cool, boys. Real cool. On the other side we have the high-concept shows: The Good Place, Stan vs. Evil, and People of Earth – TBS’s new alien abductee comedy. People of Earth had its two-episode premiere on Halloween night, and it’s poised to be the Maria that brings together the comedy Jets and Sharks. Because – get this – it’s a high-concept dramedy.
People of Earth, in one sentence, answers the question “What if all the UFO nutjobs were right?” Wyatt Cenac stars as Ozzie, a reporter who’s been taken off his usual beat (prison reform and gun control) and assigned a story about an alien “experiencers” support group. (Experiencers prefer that term to “abductee,” because it gives them more of a sense of agency in what happened to them.) Ozzie comes to realize that he may also be an experiencer, and sets out to figure out what happened to him and the other members of his new support group.
A show is high-concept if it can be pitched in one sentence, relying on its premise rather than its characters. “Suburban housewife is actually a witch” would be the one sentence used to describe Bewitched. In the television world, high-concept frequently gets misinterpreted as “gimmicky,” or “lacking strong characterization.” But high-concept can also be high art. Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” could be pitched in a sentence, as could the stories of George Orwell and Kafka. What distinguishes a high-concept work of art is how it builds on its premise. Strong characterization is the only thing separating Hamlet from Snakes on a Plane. And People of Earth is staffed by people who know how to do characterization.
At a TCA panel earlier this year, People of Earth creator David Jenkins said he conceived of his show as being a cross between Greg Daniels and JJ Abrams. Fortuitously, Daniels came on as an executive producer, along with Conan O’Brien. People of Earth definitely fits into the Greg Daniels oeuvre. Shows like King of the Hill and The Office were all about finding grand narratives in everyday folks’ very small lives. Jim and Pam’s romance on The Office had people swooning like it was Anna Karenina, even though no one jumped in front of a train or anything. Instead, small moments between them were invested with such significance that we as a viewing audience ate up every teapot and destroyed necktie. Likewise, King of the Hill had at its core a man who was so afraid of his feelings his emotional constipation once became literal.
King of the Hill was unique for an animated show because it did not get particularly wacky with the animation. Characters stayed on-model, and the show rarely took flights of fancy into scenes that couldn’t have been filmed live action. It was understated. People of Earth is similarly understated for a high-concept show. Most of the special effects are practical. The aliens are dudes in masks, not CGI creations. Ozzie’s frequent breaks with reality, where he hallucinates people with deer heads, are done with puppets. And much of the show’s humor comes from juxtaposing the sci-fi blockbuster plot with the petty squabbling of humans and aliens alike. People of Earth posits a world where the three most common types of aliens alleged by humans – grays, reptilians, and nordics – are all working together to take over Earth. Or they’re at least trying to work together.
Likewise the experiencers support group, Starcrossed, is more focused on who had the coolest experience than working together to investigate their shared problem.
Each experiencer was told “you are special” by the aliens. They cling to this, being told they’re special by an interstellar being. Extraterrestrials are frequently the interest of people who aren’t super into the world as it currently stands. The members of Starcrossed want to make contact with alien life because contact with humans hasn’t worked out so well. These people, Ozzie included, feel out of sync with the rest of the world. They’re alienated. Conversely, what we see of the aliens tells us that they’re absorbed in all too human inter-office politics and bickering.
People of Earth is also grounded by its performances. Starcrossed is full of comic utility players, actors who add value to everything they work on. Besides Cenac, the show is anchored by Ana Gasteyer as the leader of Starcrossed. Brian Huskey (Children’s Hospital, Regular-Sized Rudy on Bob’s Burgers) plays Richard, a guy obsessed with reptilians. He blames lizard people for all his problems, rather than take ownership of his shitty job and disappeared wife. Alice Wetterlund and Tracee Chimo (Orange is the New Black) play women who had encounters with the same nordic alien. But the emotional core of the show is Gerry, played by Luka Jones. Gerry is a gaping maw of need. He wants to meet aliens, but more than that he just wants a friend. Gerry is desperate for companionship. When he hands his business card to Ozzie (promoting both his alien expertise and legal marijuana advocacy), he tells him to “call anytime. You’re never bothering me!” Gerry is the dog who thinks he’s going for a normal car ride, only to be left on the side of the road in the woods.
Vulture called People of Earth “smarter than it is funny.” It’s certainly more dry than wacky, despite having a goofy premise and a preponderance of talking deer. But all Greg Daniels joints are slow burns. Once all the characters are fully fleshed out, the jokes will sing out with more clarity. The project of a high-concept pilot is to lay out the premise clearly. The project of a dramedy pilot is to get you emotionally invested in the characters. People of Earth succeeds at both goals. But if the show is going to succeed, it needs to keep feet in both sides of the turf war. The writers are going to need to build emotional relationships and get to the underlying tragedy of human existence (that we’re born alone and die alone), while simultaneously doings lots of mythology plotting and world-building. Because when you’re high-concept, you’re high concept all the way.