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‘People of Earth’ Review: Close Encounters with Aliens in Conan O’Brien’s TBS Sitcom

A tired premise and cartoonish characters make this comedy a bit too earthbound

Aliens are hardly new on TV, especially when it comes to the comedic format. Extraterrestrials have lived among us (“3rd Rock From the Sun”), set up their own neighborhoods (“The Neighbors”), mixed with other species where they hung out in space (“Red Dwarf”) and even featured prominently on “Saturday Night Live” for several years (the Coneheads sketches back in the ’70s).Taking the concept and twisting it around to focus on those who have had alien encounters, however, is a pretty fresh take on the topic. That’s the entry point for TBS’s latest comedy “People of Earth.”

Viewers meet a group of misfits at an “experiencers” support group – run by former “SNL” star Ana Gasteyer – when Ozzie Graham (“The Daily Show’s” stoic-faced Wyatt Cenac) shows up to write an article on their experiences. The only catch is that as Ozzie is driving in from the big city to cover the group he has an encounter of his own, making him question his own jaded, preconceived notions.

Offbeat and inherently silly, the pilot goes on to explain that there are three kinds of aliens – big eyed creepers, lizard-like beings and good-looking Ryan Gosling types, but their real motivations and what they want with the humans they abduct become one of the show’s main mysteries by the end of the pilot.

It all adds up to an extremely quirky comedy that isn’t for the masses, but one that doesn’t take itself too seriously, either. “Daily Show” fans will inevitably love Cenac here as much as they did before he and Jon Stewart had a falling-out on that show; he’s an interesting choice for a lead and one that you can’t really turn away from. Between his sarcastic comedic timing and facial expressions he alone is enough to carry the show, but Ozzie’s personality is rounded out by characters that are inherently crazier than he is in order for his descent into a believer to work. Someone has to hold his hand and convince him he’s not losing his mind, after all.

Then there’s the creative team behind the series, which comes with its own form of accolades. Helping creator David Jenkins along are executive producers Conan O’Brien and Greg Daniels, who famously turned the American version of “The Office” into a long-running success story. If anyone could be trusted with writing for a mismatched group of characters that are forced into the same setting through one commonality it’s him.

On the other hand, although this is a rare instance for viewers to explore alien life from a new point of view, the support group premise itself isn’t a new one; Matthew Perry’s 2012 entry “Go On” was unable to find success bringing people together with the very same setup. Unfortunately it’s hard to see “People of Earth” having a different outcome given all the overly cartoonish characters viewers meet at the outset. Perhaps as they settle into themselves and gain some depth throughout the coming episodes that could change, but that’s a risky gamble for viewers who are quick to change the dial when faced with hundreds of options these days.

The bottom line? “People of Earth” earns kudos for going for the stars, but it also suffers from a failure to launch.

“People of Earth” debuts Oct. 31 on TBS.