The first season of Syfy’s Resident Alien was a fish (or more accurately, octopus) out of water comedy that put a genuinely new spin on a quirky small town’s worth of old tropes. The much anticipated second season opens with a spaceship falling to earth—and with an ominous crash of much of what made the show so much fun.
In the first season, a four-armed giant green big-eyed alien lands in the town of Patience, Colorado, murders vacationing doctor Harry Vanderspeigle (Alan Tudyk) and sets about to destroy the earth. He’s lost his earth-destroying machine, though, and so while he tries to find it, he’s recruited by his unsuspecting neighbors to take the place of the recently murdered town doctor.
The series is like Northern Exposure if the cranky Jewish outsider were replaced by a ranting supervillain. Tudyk manages to carry himself as if he really is an alien wearing a skin suit; his face seems like it’s been stapled haphazardly onto his skull. He veers cheerfully from cute to homicidal. One minute he’s an awkward but sympathetic nerd learning the ins and outs of humanity from his assistant Asta Twelvetrees (Sara Tomko). The next he’s trying (rather ineffectually) to murder the one child who can see his true shape, Max (Judah Prehn.)
The series has many delightful touches—the friendship between Asta and former Olympic skier D’Arcy (Alice Wetterlund), for example. But its core is that its awkwardly lovable (if conceited) main character is also its implacable (if bumbling) antagonist.
At the end of season 1, though, Harry reveals his alienness and his mission to Asta and she convinces him not to destroy the world. He’s no longer the bad guy, which fundamentally changes the tenor of the series. It’s now a much more standard story about an outsider trying to learn his place in a community, sans the twist of him secretly trying to murder everyone on earth.
I’d hoped that Tudyk’s charisma and the sharp writer’s room could figure out a way to keep the show fresh despite the change. Unfortunately, the first episode, “Old Friends,” is not promising.
Harry, who had been heading for space at the end of the first series, is brought back down quickly. Then he develops amnesia. Then he gets his memory back. Then he has to hide his ship. Then he provides a magical tech solution to that. He talks to an octopus also, which is fun—but it’s a gag they already used last season. Astrid trails around after him trying to clean up his messes, a much less interesting dynamic than in the first season, where the will-she-find-out-about-him-or-won’t-she tension gave her more autonomy and more distance to pursue her own character arcs that bumped up against Harry’s in less rote ways.
The series’ snap isn’t entirely gone. Nice, deferential town mayor Ben Hawthorne (Levi Fiehler), much to his own surprise, and with the help of his wife, beat off a group of home invaders at the end of the first season. It's fun to watch him try on the identity of tough guy sexual dynamo, with mixed results. Harry and Max’s childish insult-a-thons remain a joy. Harry is completely baffled by the confounding pronoun shuffling when Max sneers, “I know you are but what am I?”
Nor is all hope lost for improvement. Resident Alien has always been a little uneven, teetering towards maudlin message-mongering (you’ve got a lot of that in this episode, unfortunately) before finding its way back to a better balance of bitter with the sweet. The ending of “Old Friends” points towards a more focused direction for the series which could help it find its feet, and/or tentacles. Maybe this is just a brief setback before blasting off to new and better aliennesses. (Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to view screeners of later episodes.)
So, I’m not giving up yet. Still, despite my love for Tudyk and the show, it’s hard to muster a ton of enthusiasm for tuning in next week after this lackluster entry. Critics often talk about shows jumping the shark when they abandon their core concepts and leap into absurdity. The fear is that Resident Alien is doing the opposite—burrowing under the shark and casting aside its essential absurdity for a more banal stuck-in-the-mud approach. We need Resident Alien to figure out how to get uncomfortable in its skin again.
This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.