Syfy Channel turns to an old TV trope—the quirky rural doctor who solves murders in a quaint small-town setting—for its latest primetime series. (Other variations on the theme might include quirky rural priest, coroner, author, etc.) But what’s the sci-fi twist, you ask? Well, fortunately, the makers of “Resident Alien” have another well-worn trope—the space alien who has crash-landed on Earth and is trying to get home—to Crazy Glue on to that earlier premise. The end result is a hilarious savvy bit of TV escapism—something very much like what you’d get if “Invader Zim” were sent to live in “Northern Exposure” and forced to reenact old episodes of “Diagnosis: Murder.”
Cult TV fave Alan Tudyk (“Firefly,” “Arrested Development,” “Doom Patrol” and roughly half the animated series currently on air) stars as a typically big-eyed, green-skinned alien whose interstellar spaceship crashed in the mountains of Colorado during a tumultuous winter storm. He took shelter in a lakeside cabin, bumping off the resident (one Harry Vanderspiegel by name, a vacationing big city physician) and stealing his name and physical identity.
For the last four months, he’s been surreptitiously combing the snowy mountaintops, looking for a certain “device” that was lost in the crash. It goes without saying that this particular alien device spells bad news for the human race. But our “man” Harry’s mission is sidelined when the local sheriff comes a-knocking on his door. Seems the doctor from the local village has met an untimely end, and the local constabulary needs a medical professional to help figure out whodunit.
Reluctantly, Harry starts looking into the crime. Perhaps because he likes flaunting his superior alien intellect (or maybe because he learned how to speak English by watching old episodes of “Law & Order”), our unearthly protagonist finds himself intrigued by this new pursuit. The problem is, he’s on something of a timetable, and he can’t afford for the local townspeople to figure out what he really is.
The “joke” of the show is that Harry isn’t a very convincing human; he hasn’t had much practice at it. Tudyk is a master of physical quirks and vocal tics. His Harry the Alien is a wondrously funny deconstruction of humanity at its most flawed. Harry spends most of his time worrying that the locals will find him too “weird.” But like most small towns, this Colorado hamlet is filled with quirky oddballs. There’s the seriously underage mayor. There’s the wild child, whisky-brewing bar owner. There’s the redneck African American sheriff, who insists everyone call him “Big Black” (although no one wants to take him up on it). Weird Harry doesn’t realize he fits right in. … Except for the fact that one small boy in town has a rare genetic quirk that allows him to see right through Harry’s human disguise to his true form. Add killing that kid to the list of things Harry’s going to have to do—right between solving a murder and destroying the planet.
“Resident Alien” is based on the Dark Horse comic book of the same name by Peter Hogan and Steve Parkhouse. Dark Horse was a big force in ’90s Hollywood, with comic book movies like The Mask, The Rocketeer, Barb Wire, Timecop and Dr. Giggles filling theater screens. Nice to see Dark Horse stepping up its TV game these days with this and Netflix’s “The Umbrella Academy.”
Syfy’s take on “Resident Alien” replicates the original comic book’s genial genre mash-up and sets itself up for a nice moral quandary on the part of its main character. Before the pilot is over, Harry has already taken a liking to whiskey and a shine to the town’s tough-cookie Native American nurse (Sara Tomko). Clearly, in pretending to be human, he’ll eventually learn humanity and start having second thoughts about his original mission. But knowing the show’s trajectory doesn’t diminish the lighthearted charm of its setting or the comic joy of seeing Alan Tudyk in another sure-fire cult series.
Kudos go out to creator and writer Chris Sheridan, who spent a few years penning FOX’s “Family Guy” and who finds just the right balance here between TV satire, sci-fi in-joke and comfortingly traditional network crime solving. Be on the lookout in future episodes for more winking Easter eggs for the sci-fi fans in the audience—including Linda Hamilton as a hard-ass military bigwig. … And keep your eyes open next time you go through small-town Colorado. It may not be the weed that’s making people weird.