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Sam Neill as Sheriff John Bell Tyson stands in a cornfield in the Apple TV Plus show Invasion Photo: Apple TV Plus

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Apple’s Invasion is basically This Is Us, but with aliens

In spite of its space-invaders spectacle, Apple TV’s new show is a more intimate sort of drama

Joshua Rivera (he/him) is an entertainment and culture journalist specializing in film, TV, and video game criticism, the latest stop in a decade-plus career as a critic.

There are a lot of ways to imagine what our first contact with intelligent alien life would look like, but according to the new sci-fi TV series Invasion, it’s worth remembering that there’s a non-zero chance that we would be more interested in extraterrestrial visitors than they would be in us.

The new Apple TV Plus series, which premieres Oct. 22, beckons viewers with a grounded, global take on an alien invasion. Since it’s on the same streaming platform as grand science fiction epics like Foundation and See, it’s understandable to presume that Invasion would be of a similar shade: widescreen genre spectacle showing off wild new sights on the regular. Invasion doesn’t entirely lack that dynamic, but the first five episodes — the ones offered to critics for advance screening — are devoted to something else entirely. They focus on a series of small, intimate dramas taking place around the world, the moment we find out we are not alone.

An alien-invasion show that doesn’t actually feature a whole lot of aliens upfront may seem frustrating, so it’s worthwhile to go into Invasion with a little bit of insight about what it’s doing. Invasion is told from the perspective of five people around the world as aliens violently arrive on Earth, to unknowable ends. They’re only shown in glimpses, so it’s impossible to parse what they are from any one episode; the only thing that’s certain is that humanity is in their way.

It’s a take that treats first contact as more of a natural disaster than an all-out war, and the majority of the characters followed are not in a position of power where they can learn about or engage with these beings. Instead, they’re normal people, frustrated with or worried about each other in small, mundane ways. Take away the aliens, and what’s left is essentially the sprawling network family drama series This Is Us.

Each of the protagonists are already having a difficult time before the aliens invade. Sheriff John Bell Tyson (Sam Neill) is about to retire from his small Oklahoma post, but doesn’t really feel he’s done enough to clean up his neighborhood. Trevante Ward (Shamier Anderson) is an American soldier lost in Afghanistan, isolated from his unit in the aftermath. Mitsuki (Shioli Kutsuna) is a control-room specialist for Japan’s space program, in a secret relationship with the female astronaut she’s about to send to space. Casper Morrow (Billy Barret) is a London school kid with a bully problem, who winds up in a Lord of the Flies situation. And Aneesha Malik (Golshifteh Farahani) has discovered her husband, Ahmed (Firas Nassar) is having an affair with another woman in the overwhelmingly white Long Island suburb they’re trying to fit into.

At its best, Invasion uses its sci-fi crisis to twist the knife in these stories. Sheriff Tyson is making his slow walk toward retirement, while feeling like he’s never been able to make the sort of difference he thought he would. And then he discovers a disaster he can’t possibly fix. There’s a similar dramatic irony in the audience knowing Mitsuki is helping send her love to the place where she will be in greatest danger.

These moments are front-loaded into an effective pilot, then sparsely doled out over the next few episodes. Invasion squanders the potential benefit five storylines offering five different flavors of show — it paints them all with the same brush, one that’s more soap opera than science fiction. The litany of quiet internal dramas is interrupted by the confusion of a disaster epic. While both sides of Invasion’s coin are individually effective on an occasional basis, the two rarely complement each other in a satisfying way.

Mostly, Invasion spends its first five episodes meandering from character to character, slowly advancing their personal dramas while escalating their stress levels. At times, it drifts into painful stereotypes. With Trevante’s story in particular, the show’s writers seem most interested in humanizing the Afghans he encounters, inadvertently exoticizing them further by not treating their humanity as a given. Like This Is Us, Invasion is mostly interested in an emotional connection with its characters, rather than in the trappings of science fiction — and it isn’t afraid of doing a little manipulation to get there.

Invasion is now streaming its first three episodes on Apple TV Plus, with new episodes every Friday.