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Review: ‘People of Earth’ on TBS is a sympathetic look at alien abductees

Wyatt Cenac stars in the science-fiction comedy "People of Earth."
Wyatt Cenac stars in the science-fiction comedy “People of Earth.”
(Jan Thijs/TBS)

Comedies about extraterrestrials on planet Earth have tended to be big and broad: “ALF,” “Mork & Mindy” and “3rd Rock From the Sun.”

“People of Earth,” about an alien-abductee support group premiering Monday on TBS, is the opposite: a high-concept sci-fi comedy with a subdued, niche sensibility. Something of a cross between “Parks and Recreation” and “Men in Black,” it is not as amusing as that description suggests — nor does it seem to want to be.

Like many ostensible comedies these days, “People of Earth” is more eccentric than funny ha-ha, with quiet character moments and deadpan observations taking the place of punchlines. Instead of ridiculing the abductees, the show is a surprisingly earnest look at a group of lonely oddballs struggling with hazy but traumatic memories.

But both its humor and its more serious themes feel undernourished, and the end result is a comedy that, despite its potential, feels slight.

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Created by playwright David Jenkins, the series follows veteran New York City journalist Ozzie Graham (Wyatt Cenac), who is assigned an article about the support group.

The work brings him to the small town of Beacon, N.Y., which he soon learns is a hotbed of extraterrestrial encounters. (A real place, Beacon is known more for its transplanted Brooklynites than space invaders.)

Ozzie initially dismisses the “experiencers,” as the abductees prefer to call themselves, as harmless weirdos, but he gradually realizes a car accident on his first night in town may actually have been an encounter with extraterrestrial life. He’s also creeped out by his boss, Jonathan (Michael Cassidy), a vapid, Paleo-dieting, media titan who for reasons that will soon become clear is far too interested in his whereabouts.

So Ozzie somewhat reluctantly lays down roots in Beacon and begins to learn more about his fellow experiencers. In the most unexpected and interesting aspect of “People of Earth,” they are treated sympathetically, not as deluded, tinfoil hat-wearers. Most have in fact been abducted and also are dealing with an assortment of painful, if earthbound, experiences: death, divorce, childhood trauma and so on.

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At its most intriguing, “People of Earth” is an earnest look at the sometimes ridiculous ways humans try to deal with loneliness, loss and rejection. (The group meets in the basement of Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church, which is apt.)

With his big, mournful eyes and permanently furrowed brow, Cenac, a former correspondent on “The Daily Show,” is well-suited to the material, able to convincingly play both Ozzie’s skepticism and his kindness. He delivers the closest thing the show has to big laugh lines, at one point bemoaning the unexpected direction his life has taken: “I don’t know if I want to be the kind of guy who rides his bike to a Catholic church to talk about aliens.”

With its quaint small-town setting, rag-tag ensemble and tendency to find humor in the mundane, “People of Earth” clearly shares some DNA with “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation,” shows co-created by Conan O’Brien and Greg Daniels, who executive produced “People.”

We meet Jeff and Don, an improbably named pair of squabbling aliens for whom body-snatching represents another routine day at the office and whose petty disputes are reminiscent of Jim and Dwight of “The Office.”

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The cast includes a lot of seasoned comedic performers you’ve undoubtedly seen (and probably liked) elsewhere, including “SNL” alumna Ana Gasteyer as the group counselor and “The Office’s” Oscar Nunez as a wary priest at the church.

But if anything, “People of Earth” could stand to be more like Daniels’ other shows. The supporting characters are rather fuzzily drawn, a considerable drawback for a series that derives its humor from observations about human (and humanoid) behavior.

Likewise, the show has some self-conscious fun with alien-abduction tropes — the beam of white light, the memory-wiping — but it could yield more from this fertile terrain.

Once best known for reruns of “Seinfeld” and “The Big Bang Theory,” TBS recently rebranded itself as a cable outpost for off-kilter comedies, including the caustic family sitcom “The Detour” and the slapstick cop-show spoof “Angie Tribeca.”

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Pleasant if not particularly memorable, “People of Earth” fits comfortably with these shows, but it may not do much to draw new visitors — intergalactic or otherwise.

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“People of Earth”

Where: TBS

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When: 9 and 9:30 p.m. Monday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

Follow me @MeredithBlake


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