Flipping through the pages of Dark Horse Comics’ Resident Alien, it is easy to see why it might become a television show. Written by Peter Hogan with art from Steve Parker, it tells the tale of an alien marooned on Earth who adopts the name Harry Vanderspeigle. His alien physiology gives him the ability to cloak as human and it is a good thing as the mayor and sheriff of nearby Patience, Colorado, ask for his help after their local doctor is murdered. Harry, a fan of cheap crime novels, decides to risk going to town in order to see the corpse. What follows is a curious mixture of police procedural, film noir, and the slow burn quirkiness of Northern Exposure.
“I fell in love with the thought of using an alien as eyes into trying to figure out what it’s like to be human,” showrunner Chris Sheridan recently told Rotten Tomatoes. “[Harry is] in a place where he’s trying to figure out the human condition and people reading it can maybe get an insight of their own based on how Harry is seeing things. So I really fell in love with that.”
Of course, the show is different from its source material in may ways. It is faster, quippier, and Harry (Alan Tudyk) is far less genial on television than his comic book counterpart. Harry is, in fact, not exactly a good guy, and his mission on Earth may have dire consequences if he can ever recover the pieces of his ship.
“I felt like raising the stakes would be helpful,” Sheridan explained. “Giving Harry a sort of a negative mission and a negativity around him a little bit, gives him a place to go.”
That place, of course, is discovering his literally newfound humanity.
“Now that he’s sort of infected with these emotions, sort of becoming a little more human himself, we can watch his journey and learn a little bit about ourselves as well,” Sheridan explained.
As viewers will see, what it means to be human is very much at the core of the series — that is, if those viewers get over the part where Harry tries to kill the one person in town who can see him as an alien: a boy named Max (Judah Prehn). When homicide fails, Harry resorts to psychological warfare.
“He becomes a threat to Harry, so he uses that against him,” Tudyk said.
As it happens, no one else in town believes Max, which leads to an Invaders From Mars dynamic. Granted, the alien’s desire to kill a boy is just one trait that makes Harry fun to watch.
According to the actor, the producers cast a pretty wide net to find the right lead before the opportunity to audition came his way.
“It immediately appealed to me,” he said.
The mix of genuine sentiment and TV-friendly cruelty came through in the audition, and he emerged as the right Harry, a being still learning how to walk and talk correctly despite a steely intelligence.
Playing Harry, of course, requires spending a significant amount of time in alien make-up. The head itself is a two-hour application process; longer when a chest piece is called for compared to a simpler girdle needed for other scenes. Combined with his performance and some computer graphics to add some blinking and squints — “The eyes are so cool,” Tudyk said — it is one of the more effective alien performances on television.
(Photo by James Dittinger/SYFY)
Another part of playing Harry is spending time with Max as their conflict heats up. Their ongoing feud becomes a key part of the story with the two playing off each other in an unexpected and funny way.
“Kids are so smart now,” Tudyk said of Prehn’s Max. “It helps that Harry is at the emotional level of like a nine-year-old.”
In coming to town, Harry also meets some adults who are fooled by his human guise. These include Asta Twelvetrees (Sara Tomko), the head nurse at the local clinic who quickly forms a bond with Harry; her friend D’arcy Bloom (Alice Wetterlund), a local bartender; Mayor Ben Hawthorne (Levi Fiehler), who wants Harry to be his new shrink; and Sheriff Mike Thompson (Corey Reynolds), who is suspicious of Harry, but is also suspicious everyone.
The group proves to be a diverse and lively bunch who come to life right away. Mike, for instance, comes on strong and asks for people to call him “Big Black.” It rarely works out for him, but his posturing establishes an emotional armor — one that is soon tested by the arrival of this homicidal extraterrestrial.
“If you’re fortunate enough in this industry as an actor, you’re reading scripts a lot, [and] you come to be able to discern a little more clearly which ones have that ‘it’ factor and which ones maybe don’t have it as much. And this show checked off all the boxes,” Reynolds said.
(Photo by James Dittinger/Syfy)
One of the show’s most appealing elements is the time it spends with Asta and D’arcy as friends. Both characters are originally from Patience — the name of the town is retained from the comics — and both escaped from it for a time. Eventually they find their way back home, and their reminiscing about high school, verbal sparring, and constant emotional support proves to be something of a secret weapon for the series. Although both Tomko and Wetterlund said it was already in the characters from the first scene together, Sheridan said he picked up on the dynamic during a party scene in the third episode.
“There’s a real camaraderie there and that’s when it clicked into me what this relationship was,” he said. “It’s one of, I think, many non-romantic love stories in the show. I loved being able to portray a real friendship like this.”
The two actors also appreciated how immediately messy their characters are from the start — D’arcy a little more outwardly so than Asta.
“It’s a fun, modern trope in today’s television landscape to do messy women who don’t have it all together,” Wetterlund said. “This show does succeed at that because they’re treated as humans first from the perspective of an alien. When you look at it through Harry’s eyes, he’s like, ‘I don’t know what… What’s a woman?’
“We’re not defined at all by our gender,” she continued. “It’s just a part of who we are. When this show has an opportunity to tell a story, it tells it from the alien’s perspective, so our messiness is … it’s very real. It’s very meaty.”
(Photo by James Dittinger/Syfy)
For Asta, that meaty messiness also comes with an extended Native American family. Tomko was surprised how quickly the show delved into the difference between Patience and a nearby reservation, but felt “it is so important that you immediately understand there is a lot going on here and that there is so much that she is dealing with.”
As the story begins, Harry observes her as she grieves for the murdered town doctor, a sort of surrogate father figure despite the presence of her adoptive father, Dan Twelvetrees (Gary Farmer), at the local diner and the family as short drive away.
“There is just so much that you need to see right away so that you understand why she feels like an outsider and why she feels like she is going through this isolation, even though she has a wonderful family around her, it’s like that’s how her and Harry really connect,” Tomko said.
As viewers will see by the end of the first episode, there is a reason Asta feels disconnected from that larger family and it will reverberate throughout the season.
“I think you have to know that she’s going through those things, and you also have to see her being surrounded by all that love and still not seeing it herself, to understand how we really beat ourselves up as humans without seeing the love around us,” Tomko said.
(Photo by James Dittinger/Syfy)
Mike and Ben, meanwhile, represent the polar extremes of 21st-century masculinity: Mike displaying performative aggressiveness, while Ben goes for a gentler approach. But Fiehler said he doubts it will ever lead to a direct conflict between them.
“I think that as the season progresses, Mike learns from Mayor Ben, the way that I think Mayor Ben tries to take some things from Sheriff Mike,” Fiehler said. Comparing them to Stewie and Brian from Family Guy, he added, “You wouldn’t think necessarily that the two of them together could have adventures, but I really do think that the two of us together, we tend to have a lot of fun.”
The characters are also complete rethinks of the characters in the comic book with the mayor in those stories on the verge of retiring and the sheriff disarming all the expectations of a small-town lawman. The changes certainly amp up the conflict with Mike creating as much drama in his own police force as he deals with on the streets. Reynolds said the dynamic will lead to a change of sorts in Mike before too long.
“I pointed out to Chris early on with this character, because we had made him so cantankerous and so pissed off all the time, that I was like, ‘I don’t know if we can get away with this for season after season, unless the audience feels some sort of sympathy for him,’” he explained.
Ben, whose issues form a great punchline early in the series, will also be explored.
“I feel we get to see him work through some of the major ones throughout the season,” Fiehler said. “I feel like he ends up kind of becoming more of the mayor figure that maybe he should be.”
And it’s a good thing, too, with a murderer on the loose and Harry roaming town with his eccentricities. Ben also has to convince Harry to stay on as the town doctor until a permanent replacement can be found.
(Photo by Syfy)
And speaking of Harry, the show will offer one more curious wrinkle: the real Harry, whose identity the alien stole, will matter.
“I knew early on who Harry was. I was told it was part of the sales pitch on the show,” Tudyk teased. “There’s still some good stuff to come about who the person was that the alien takes over.”
It remains to be seen, of course, if that will prove to be Resident Alien’s biggest surprise.