Hit or Sh**: TBS’s PEOPLE OF EARTH
In this Crossfader series, our intricate and complex rating system will tell you definitively whether new television pilots are worth your valuable time. We call it: HIT OR SH**.
I really, really, really want to like PEOPLE OF EARTH. It’s continuing the weird trend of plot-driven high concept comedies (Exhibit A: THE GOOD PLACE). It’s got an excellent cast of character actors just waiting to say ridiculous stuff. And best of all it’s got a load of weird secrets (New Media Conspiracy Plot! Secret Double Workplace Comedy! Oscar Nunez!).
But, unfortunately, there are problems.
It’s not with the premise. The premise is solid. Ozzie Graham (Wyatt Cenac, THE DAILY SHOW), a skeptical reporter for some online website, is assigned to profile an “alien abduction support group” that just so happens to meet in an upstate New York Catholic church. This points to the inherent workplace sitcom roots of the show (Greg Daniels directs the pilot episode). The reveal—or at least direction—the pilot points to is that this is actually a story of two “workplaces”: the humans and their support group, and the the real aliens that abducted them and their ship. Ozzie discovers that his memory of a car crash is in fact the suppressed memory of an alien abduction, so he quits his job and starts writing for the local newspaper, while his boss at his hip “new media” news website might be an alien himself, who seems to have a dastardly plan for the support group. And so the pilot ends, by hanging its hat on what is ostensibly the tag of a network drama and not a network comedy.
Perhaps this would be funnier as an AA meeting?
On paper, this is all fine and good. There’s no reason a comedy shouldn’t have grand plot aspirations and exist in a big, complex world, ripe for unique comedic scenarios. The problem with PEOPLE OF EARTH is none of these things. In fact the reason I like it is because of these things. The problem with PEOPLE OF EARTH is that it’s not very funny.
Wyatt Cenac is an acquired taste. A talented writer from THE DAILY SHOW’s past who left after a disagreement with Jon Stewart, Cenac is a master of deadpan delivery. Often excelling at facing the utmost absurdity with a straight, even amused face, he fits the role of skeptical reporter well. The issue is that his light cynicism and general seriousness draw the fun out of most of his scenes in PEOPLE OF EARTH. Separately, they’d function nicely as a response to what seems to be a thinly drawn, but fairly weird world, but together with other actors like Ana Gasteyer (SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE) or Brian Huskey (VEEP) who are going big with their performance, it all just seems incongruous. Jokes fall flat and the whole pilot feels deflated. Light moments with the “alien” cast of the show attempt to buoy things, but it’s simply not enough.
Why can’t there be more of this?
Beyond that, PEOPLE OF EARTH’s interests seem split. Between the large cast and the two fairly big storylines explored in the pilot, PEOPLE OF EARTH can’t seem to really establish what the format of a typical episode will be. Is the show completely serialized or is there some kind of procedural setup in the works? How big of a role do the aliens actually play? Normally these questions could be excusable or the indication of a truly engaging pilot. With this unfunny first episode of PEOPLE OF EARTH, it just seems like it’s poorly constructed.
All of this aside, there’s still something interesting going on here. The world deserves exploring and the characters want to be understood. It just seems the kind of comedy being used is not the best vehicle to do it.
PEOPLE OF EARTH airs on Mondays on TBS