Harry Vanderspeigle (Alan Tudyk of Firefly and Rogue One), the protagonist of Syfy’s new dramedy Resident Alien, doesn’t belong in Patience, Colorado. Everyone in the small, remote town knows each other, and as the new town doctor, Harry has to try to navigate their quirks and complicated personal dramas when he just wants to get home. While Harry tells everyone that home is New York City, it’s actually another planet.
At first glance, Resident Alien seems like a science-fiction twist on the early-’90s dramedy Northern Exposure, with an actual alien taking on the role of Jewish doctor Joel Fleischman. It also has obvious parallels to oddball alien-focused sitcoms like 3rd Rock from the Sun and Solar Opposites. But while Tudyk is the undisputed star of the show, Resident Alien creator Chris Sheridan has flipped the script on the fish-out-of-water narrative by exploring how everyone can feel like an outsider.
“Everyone needs to belong to something bigger than themselves,” Harry muses in one of the moralistic episode conclusions, summing up what he’s learned about humanity and himself over the course of the past 45 minutes. “Yes, there is strength in numbers, but maybe it’s simpler. Maybe humans just feel better when they know they are not alone on this Earth.”
That’s pretty much the thesis of Resident Alien, which was adapted from Peter Hogan and Steve Parkhouse’s Dark Horse Comics series of the same name. Along with moving the setting from Washington to Colorado, Sheridan moved the focus of the series away from solving crimes to focus more on interpersonal relationships. Harry, who taught himself to speak English by watching a lot of Law & Order, still is fascinated by mysteries, but most of the plot is devoted to how the people of Patience relate to each other, grapple with their pasts, and try to build a better future for themselves and their loved ones.
Of course, none of that should matter to Harry, who crashed on Earth during his mission to wipe out all human life. He killed the real Dr. Vanderspeigle, who had moved to Patience from New York seeking solitude, and has been trying to avoid detection while wearing Vanderspeigle’s appearance and searching for the parts of his ship buried under snow. But when Patience’s town doctor, Sam Hodges, dies under mysterious circumstances, Harry is enlisted to both investigate that death and take on Sam’s former job until a replacement can be found.
That involves working closely with Asta Twelvetrees (Sara Tomko), who was Sam’s nurse and viewed him as a mentor and father figure. Asta quickly forms a strong bond with Harry after he intervenes to protect her from her abusive ex-husband. “I’ve always been an outsider,” Asta confesses to him. “Maybe that’s why I understand you. You’re just different. I know what that feels like. Sometimes just feeling human is alien to me.”
Tudyk and Tomko have an easy chemistry, whether they’re having conversations driven by Harry’s awkward bluntness, or in heavier material, like Asta discussing her decision to give up the child she had as a teenager for adoption. It’s the sort of relationship probably destined to turn into a will-they, won’t-they romance. But in the first seven episodes of the 10-episode season, it’s pleasantly just one of mutual respect, if not always admiration, given that both characters are prone to making big mistakes and being forced to deal with them.
Most of the town’s residents also struggle with how they fit in. Asta’s best friend D’arcy Bloom (Alice Wetterlund) seems carefree when pouring drinks at the town’s bar, but she’s still mourning her lost chance at glory when an injury ended her Olympic skiing career. Sheriff Mike Thompson (Corey Reynolds of The Closer) is jealous of the action in bigger towns and dreams of having a serial killer to hunt, while his deputy Liv Baker (Elizabeth Bowen) wishes he’d pay attention to her insights so she can feel like she’s making a difference. The young mayor Ben Hawthorne (Levi Fiehler) is just trying to keep things running smoothly while avoiding controversy.
“This is actually the oldest building in Patience,” Ben tells a new arrival, gesturing to a plaque hanging in the town’s pub. “Yeah, if you don’t count indigenous history since before recorded time,” Asta corrects him. “And we will be taking that plaque down,” Ben responds, with the nervous energy of someone still learning to check his privilege.
The biggest problem Ben has to deal with is his son, Max (Judah Prehn), who has the rare genetic ability to see Harry’s true alien form, and is desperately trying to convince his family and anyone else who will listen that the new doctor is a murderous alien. Max is a weird kid with an overactive imagination, and Harry’s lack of experience with humans makes him childlike in his own way, turning their rivalry into a surprisingly even match. The dynamic is akin to a hybrid between Stranger Things and Invader Zim, with Max plotting to expose Harry, while Harry tries to get this meddling kid out of his way.
Tudyk does an absolutely fantastic job with a role that’s surprisingly physical, whether it’s the awkward way he holds his mouth fully open while laughing at his own jokes, or his attempts to continue eating steak while being hugged. His dialogue is alternately absurd and deeply philosophical, and his ability to quickly transition between the two modes provides some poignant scenes as the writers sometimes avoid easy jokes in favor of bigger emotional beats.
While there are plenty of antics focused on Harry’s attempts to maintain his secret, the theme of the show is that everyone in Patience has their own secrets. “Humans lie,” Harry muses. “It’s what they do. Maybe they don’t want people to know who they really are.”
Harry hides his nature to avoid capture, but he’s also addicted to the feeling of being seen. At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has left so many people feeling isolated and lonely, Harry’s struggle to balance safety with a desire for companionship is especially relatable. Harry’s definitely the weirdest guy in town, but he also fits right in.
The Resident Alien pilot is streaming free on Syfy’s website. New episodes will be released on Syfy on Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET.