With “The Ghost of Bobby Smallwood,” Resident Alien Showcases Both Its Humor and Emotional ComplexityPhoto Courtesy of Syfy TV Features Resident Alien
There are a lot of television shows we’re all missing right now because there’s just too much TV to keep up with all of it. But there’s a good chance in the last year and a half, someone in your trusted circle of taste has recommended that really funny Alan Tudyk show where he plays an alien. They may, or may not have remembered it’s called Resident Alien and probably forgot where it airs (SYFY), so you likely filed it away in that overstuffed “I gotta watch that” corner of your brain. Which would be a shame, because Alan Tudyk’s funny alien show is absolutely that but also a whole lot more, as evidenced in the latest Season 2 episode, “The Ghost of Bobby Smallwood.”
In the relatively compact span of 20-hours, Resident Alien has managed to actualize quite a few of the fundamental elements seen in some of the greatest ensemble dramedies on TV. Yes, it’s still too early to rank the series amongst all-time, found family classics like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Scrubs, or Parks and Recreation, but Resident Alien already exhibits the kind of ambitious, emotion-based writing from creator/executive producer Chris Sheridan and his writers’ room, paired with the sublime versatile acting chops of its ensemble cast, that portends well for its potential legacy.
If you haven’t watched the series, Resident Alien is adapted from the Dark Horse comic of the same name by Peter Hogan and Steve Parkhouse. The premise of both are relatively similar: an alien intending to destroy Earth instead crash lands his spaceship in the remote wilderness and hides his presence by replicating the guise and identity of rural physician, Dr. Harry Vanderspeigle. In the series, Harry (Tudyk) the alien learns English by mainlining episodes of Law & Order and then awkwardly tries to commingle, begrudgingly, amongst the eccentric townspeople of Patience, Colorado. It’s a high concept premise that could easily have been played entirely for laughs, with Tudyk’s genius (but often underappreciated) skills at improv and physical comedy carrying the show.
However, from the pilot, Sheridan has made it clear he’s not interested in just crafting a story that relies on fish-out-of-water comedy to make its mark. Instead, he’s expanded the town of Patience to be an integral catalyst in Harry’s personal journey on our confusing rock. This town of oddballs isn’t just a collection of “wacky neighbors” playing straight men to Harry’s antics. Instead, they are a melting pot of disparate outsiders including Indigenous characters, local lifers, and outsider transplants all happy to disappear into their little corner of existence. And that doesn’t make them backwards, or hicks from the sticks. Rather, they’re a relatively worldly bunch of eclectic souls who all have a multitude of layers.
Sheriff Mike (Corey Reynolds) is a former cop from D.C. who returned home to care for his dad and avoid the PTSD triggered by his partner’s death. Deputy Liv (Elizabeth Bowen) is his extremely competent, but taken-for-granted current partner. D’Arcy (Alice Wetterlund) is a local, former Olympian whose bright future was doused by a career-ending injury, so now she runs the local bar and avoids connections of any note. Mayor Ben (Levi Fiehler) is the town’s young mayor, married to a non-local, Kate (Meredith Garretson), who finds himself jostling with her for control of just about everything, including their internal marriage dynamics. And Asta (Sara Tomko) is the old soul medical assistant who becomes Harry’s first friend and confidante and now knows the truth about his origins. There’s a smorgasbord of other support characters from kids to barflys who all add color and conundrums to Harry’s ultimate goal to finally go home, without his kind wiping out Planet Earth.
Most series would have barely scratched the surface of who these people are in only 20 episodes. But Sheridan and his writers are clearly aware of exactly how willing and able their cast is to go beyond expectations, because they’ve already done a tremendous amount of groundwork making these characters feel so real and lived-in with their quirks and flaws. And that’s allowed the Resident Alien storylines to not only push forward Harry’s growth as an alien trying to figure out the oddities of human emotions and actions, but it’s also meant the support characters all can experience a steady progression of revelations, complications, and flexion points that push them as well. Usually Harry’s internal wrestling with a human trait is mirrored in the dilemmas of one or more of the other character’s in Patience, too, which creates an emotional tapestry that ties the characters together through a really satisfying ebb and flow. The parallels make the townspeople feel like they’re an organic extension of Harry’s journey, too.
There’s no better evidence of how well the show pulls that off than in this week’s episode, “The Ghost of Bobby Smallwood.” Writer Christian Taylor) ably balances more than five separate plots with the episode’s heady overarching themes of processing grief and death. Amongst the funny of an alien baby on the loose in town and Harry’s dark bantering with the clinic nurse he dislikes, there’s a series of deeply affecting character connections that happen across town. Sheriff Mike counsels Mayor Ben about his first-hand experience with how shoving emotions under the rug will eventually “come back to eat you alive.” Their talk prompts Ben to confront Kate in a public place to finally address some of their problems, which only devastates her to realize how scared he is of her and how changed they both are from when they first dated. And yet, they resolve their impasse by recreating how they first connected, and it becomes a potent example of love and reconciliation. And then D’Arcy has a huge moment when she allows herself to have a first date/sleepover with a really nice guy, and she doesn’t self-sabotage and leave before dawn the next morning. Lastly, Asta forces Harry to deal with the repercussions of him “wiping” her memory of shooting someone to save his life to keep her from having to deal with the guilt and pain of her actions. When she eventually discovers that what he’s done to “take away her sadness” has further damaged the tentative relationship she has with the teen daughter she gave up for adoption, the at-odds friends have a diner booth heart-to-heart. With Asta serving as Harry’s de facto parent on this planet, she forces them to have a breathtakingly honest conversation about the importance of feeling pain and grieving. When she gets Harry to admit his near-brush with death has terrified him, she tells him that everyone has to eventually own their relationship with death.
And that takes Harry—in doctor mode—to the home of a terminal patient who has asked him to perform a supervised euthansia. As they sit side-by-side, Tudyk is almost childlike in portraying Harry’s curiosity and concern about the ease with which this human is embracing death and its “fairy tale” outcome. It’s an incredibly profound and brave moment for the series to culminate its hour-long exploration of the necessity of pain in order to find gratitude and peace, with Harry performing the ultimate act of mercy, watching the final breaths of his patient while quietly asking,“What is it like?”
There aren’t many series out there poking so thoroughly at our shared emotional vulnerabilities on a weekly basis quite like Resident Alien. Ostensibly, it’s all supposed to be in service of “teaching” alien Harry what it means to be human. But in truth, what Sheridan and his cast are actually doing each week is the hard work of holding up a mirror to ourselves, and being fearless about exposing our most precious, ridiculous flaws and fears to get at what really makes us tick. Where that takes Harry, and us, is more exciting than ever.
Resident Alien Season 2B drops new episodes Wednesdays on SYFY.
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe and the official Story of Marvel Studios released in late 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett.
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