Without any outside help, humans are doing a pretty good job of making a mess of things on this planet, so it’s hard to put alien invasion high on the list of existential threats.
The defanged nature of that premise, long a staple of sci-fi storytelling, accounts for much of the amiability of “People of Earth,” a gentle and modestly pleasing comedy about a support group for alien abductees.
Of course, storytellers have had comedic fun with the premise before, most notably in “The X-Files,” which didn’t always take itself all that seriously. In fact, “People of Earth” could be read as an homage to one of the Fox series’ greatest hours, “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space.” It doesn’t have the poetry of that installment of “The X-Files” — few episodes of television do — but the TBS series also uses alien-abduction scenarios as a vehicle for exploring ideas about connection, loneliness, and the ways in which memories can be manipulated for possibly unsavory reasons.
Wyatt Cenac plays Ozzie, a journalist who writes a story about an abductee-support group that meets in the small, fictional town of Beacon. Ozzie spends much of his time reacting to odd stories spun by group members and to strange or unsettling events that happen to him, and through it all, he projects a air of bemused skepticism and mildly cynical compassion. Cenac’s deadpan reactions supply a good deal of the laughs, especially in the early going, and his able performance provides a solid center for a comedy that, by design, has a lot of oddballs floating through its orbit.
Oscar Nunez of “The Office” plays Father Doug, a put-upon priest who rents a parish room to the support group, and once again he is perfectly cast as a man who can’t believe the shenanigans of the supposed adults around him. For all his exasperation, however, Father Doug doesn’t necessarily judge the well-intentioned men and women in the support group, which is also the attitude of the show itself.
“People of Earth” may be slight and decidedly modest in its ambitions and execution, but it’s not a show that sets out to mock or belittle unconventional people. Like its tonal cousin, “Northern Exposure,” this new comedy gently celebrates the offbeat, the beleaguered and the obsessed.
The first four episodes reveal that all the characters — Ozzie included — have more than their share of personal problems (one man blames the breakup of his marriage on the couple’s dual abductions, but of course, there’s much more to the story). Those troubles could well have fueled some of their stress and paranoia, and even a few hallucinations, but pretty early on, “People of Earth” shows its hand: Very odd events are indeed happening in and around Beacon. Gerry (Luka Jones), a group member who has not actually been abducted, has collected information about a series of unexplained incidents around town, and it turns out both he and Ozzie are on to something. (Don’t read on if you want to remain in the dark about a few more details of the show’s premise.)
Ozzie himself has a very strange encounter, one that is poorly papered over with supposedly normal memories, and slowly, elements of an alien conspiracy emerge. It’s not clear what the intruders want, why they want Earth, or why sleepy Beacon would be on any intergalactic traveler’s must-visit list. Getting a few more early clues about those kinds of things might lend “People of Earth” a bit more urgency and energy, which waver now and then. A lack of specificity about the characters and the premise can occasionally make the show feel as vague as the memories of an abductee (actually, “experiencer” is the preferred term, as Ozzie learns).
In any event, the most enjoyable expansion of the show’s mythology is a collection of scenes showing alien co-workers pulling long shifts in what can only be called an abduction chamber. As in any other workplace, there are squabbles, feuds, and in-jokes, and despite extensive makeup, the actors in those scenes have enjoyable comic chemistry. Those moments feel like extraterrestrial outtakes from “The Office,” one of executive producer Greg Daniels’ previous shows; the emotions of the humans being experimented on are barely noticed, given that staffers are so busy complaining about each other.
Ultimately, “People of Earth” is a fish-out-of-water comedy several times over. Ozzie is a stranger to Beacon, yet slowly begins to feel accepted there, and his bro-ish boss (a very funny Michael Cassidy), who follows him there, is even more out of place in the small town, which finds it difficult to accommodate his paleo diet. Thankfully, not all of the abductees are truly wacky, which would get old fast. Ana Gasteyer’s character, former therapist Gina Morrison, is another refugee from the big city, trying to figure out where her life went wrong and how much of it she can blame on invaders from space. Aliens and humans alike are searching for a purpose, or, failing that, a set of collective goals they can at least understand.
It’s a competitive landscape for comedy, and like the similarly high-concept “The Good Place,” “People of Earth” is not quite must-see TV right out of the gate. But like the NBC show, the TBS comedy has a fine cast and displays a wry and humane curiosity. As the aliens themselves will probably find out, it’s not necessarily about the destination, it’s about the journey, and the people you meet along the way.