Alan Tudyk Cuts Through the Clutter In a Comedy Searching for Its Home
Alan Tudyk is an artisan of non-humans. Sign him up to play a droid or an anthropomorphized boat or the cartoonish embodiment of chaos and the man will deliver. So it’s no surprise that the actor slots in perfectly as “Harry Vanderspeigle” in “Resident Alien,” the star of the latest genre-averse offering from Syfy.
The scare quotes around the character’s name come from the fact that it’s hard in print to distinguish the alien of the title from the human body which he inhabits for a majority of the show. With the erstwhile Harry’s corpse literally sits chilling in the downstairs freezer of a remote cabin, the alien that assumes his form is left to take over the duties of town doctor for the tucked-away mountain community of Patience, Colorado.
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It’s a premise befitting the sitcom that “Resident Alien” channels for a chunk of the series. To help build out the familiar web around alien-out-of-water Harry is Asta (Sara Tomko), an employee at the health clinic who serves as a main interpreter for Harry’s sudden odd, detached behavior. There are the notable patients: Mayor Ben Hawthorne (Levi Fiehler) and his son Max (Judah Prehn), the latter of which happens to be the only human who sees past Harry’s disguise. Across the street from the clinic is the local watering hole, where frequent bartender D’Arcy (Alice Wetterlund) takes an interest in the odd new doctor in town.
The clear draw here is the physical comedy chops of Tudyk, who takes every opportunity to play with the “alien in a human body” possibilities. He fumbles through parroting TV accents, finds new methods of chewing food, and takes every bit of narrative leeway to lean into Harry’s romantic inexperience. (It also helps to have Tudyk’s voice acting skills for a show that uses intro narration and internal monologue jokes as much as this one.)
Even before the show’s pilot can finish putting all of these Harry interactions in context, “Resident Alien” continues to add on complications. Soon, Harry isn’t just trying to pass through Patience without suspicion, he’s solving a mysterious death. And he’s looking for the remnants of the ship that brought him to Earth. And he’s trying to murder a child. And he’s skirting the suspicions of local law enforcement (Corey Reynolds as Patience’s cowboy sheriff is the show’s other clear comic bright spot).
Rather than work to bring all of these threads together in a show that focuses Harry’s anxieties about whether or not he truly wants to stay a part of this human world, “Resident Alien” continues to radiate outwards, piling on layer after layer of complications the show just doesn’t need. These later-season threads are logical ripple effects of an alien crash landing, but too often they (and the people tasked with making them make sense) feel like part a different show entirely.
That sometimes goes for the Patience residents, too. Asta is dealing with a complicated family history, D’Arcy is in full freewheeling sloppy rom-com hurricane phase, and the two officers are in a throwback cop comedy. Hopping between those often brings some tonal whiplash, even when the performers tasked with navigating those turns do as much as they can.
Filming parts of “Resident Alien” on location does help to mitigate some of those issues. The main street exteriors do feel like a sleepy, remote former mining town that welcomes the occasional out-of-town visitor. When Harry’s on the hunt for incriminating evidence (either out on the nearby lake or stuck on the side of a snow-covered mountain face), you can feel the pressure of him trying to battle nature to ease his lingering nerves.
There’s a poster for the show that bills “Resident Alien” as “the sci-fi murder mystery doctor dramedy Earth needs now.” It’s the kind of self-awareness that seeps into the show as it juggles all of those different subgenre expectations. But having to accommodate those disparate needs ends up getting in the way of what the show does best. It’s a mixed bag of mostly effective flashbacks (our first glimpse of Harry’s pre-“murdered by an alien” life is real delight) and padding subplots (Harry and Max’s battle of wills is a repetitive seesaw for much of the season).
Much like the dilemma faced by its main character, this is a spry half-hour comedy trapped inside the body of an hourlong series too expansive too early for its own good. Still, despite the elements that sometimes drag it down, Tudyk and those most locked into the energies of the show’s funnier side are enough to keep you curious about where Harry ends up.
“Resident Alien” airs Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. on Syfy.
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