In the second episode of Stan Against Evil—IFC’s new horror-comedy starring John C. McGinley as the former sheriff of a cursed New England town—the titular character plops down in his Barcalounger to tell modern-day TV to get off his lawn. Dismissing an Ice Road Truckers knockoff, Stan scoffs, “That’s not a show. I Dream Of Jeannie was a show. Guy finds a genie and everybody goes apeshit.”
Given the particularly Homer Simpson-esque tone of this rerun reverie, it comes as no surprise that Stan Against Evil is the creation of one-time Simpsons showrunner Dana Gould. But it might surprise Stan to learn that I Dream Of Jeannie, Gilligan’s Island, and My Favorite Martian have a brood of high-concept heirs spread across the current programming landscape. On Halloween night alone, IFC is airing a special preview of Stan Against Evil (which moves to its regular time slot this Wednesday), while TBS rolls out its alien-abduction comedy People Of Earth. Over on the broadcast networks, there’s a metaphorical Lost-as-sitcom in The Good Place (not to be confused with TBS’ literal Lost-as-sitcom, Wrecked), and time travelers, an imaginary friend, and a talking dog are all on deck for midseason. Credit the unexpected success of The Last Man On Earth for the rash of development executives suddenly willing to take chances on wild and wooly premises—though Stan Against Evil has its own blood-soaked precedent lurking in the premium-cable shadows.
Between the two sets of unlikely sitcom protagonists on Stan Against Evil and People Of Earth, it’s the abductees—or “experiencers,” as they prefer to be called—who arrive most fully prepared for primetime. People Of Earth begins with journalist Ozzie Graham (Wyatt Cenac) writing a human-interest story about Starcrossed, a support group whose members all claim to have been abducted by extraterrestrial beings. Think of it as The X-Files by way of This American Life, with your host Ira Scully—in our first act, a circle of Mulders. As coincidences mount—every member of Starcrossed lives in the same town, and their experiences each involve one of three distinct alien races—Ozzie makes an unsettling discovery: He might be recovering from his own close encounter.
People Of Earth was created by Craig Jenkins, but the guiding hand of Greg Daniels (who serves as executive producer, alongside former writing partner Conan O’Brien) makes itself apparent early on. Daniels directed the series premiere, and his signature is also present in the way the show’s large and versatile ensemble comes together so smoothly in just a handful of episodes. Like the supporting casts in early seasons of The Office and Parks And Recreation, secondary players in Ozzie’s story make the most of their time in the spotlight—particularly Ana Gasteyer as the disgraced therapist at the head of Starcrossed, and Brian Huskey as a self-proclaimed business mogul who’s convinced that Reptilians have made off with his wife. Flashbacks fill in the backstories of their lives before Starcrossed, illuminating the truth of the experiencers’ experiences, while also illustrating some personal voids they might be attempting to fill.
It’s a comedy that’s both heavy on premise and character; for its strange brew, Stan Against Evil goes much heavier on the former. At least the recipe starts from a novel place: After 172 falsely accused witches were burned at the stake in Willard’s Mill, New Hampshire, the town constable disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Each subsequent constable or sheriff suffered their own horrible fate—with the exception of Stan Miller. People Of Earth makes a running gag of its characters being told that they’re special, but Stan truly is: Twenty-eight years he wore a sheriff’s badge, and for 28 years his wife secretly fought off the demons that wanted to claim her husband’s life. Stan Against Evil kicks off with the late Mrs. Miller’s funeral, making way for the show’s most ingenious conceptual kink. This is the story of a Sunnydale that’s lost its Buffy Summers. (Or, in light of Stan’s viewing preferences, it’s Darren attempting to navigate the world of Bewitched without Samantha.)
That would be invigorating, and the scares so much more effective, if Stan Against Evil wasn’t also infected by the dyed-Karo-syrup lust of vintage Sam Raimi. At this summer’s Television Critics Association press tour, Gould expressed an affection for Evil Dead 2 and told the TV press that Stan Against Evil was already in development when Ash Vs. Evil Dead debuted on Starz. But their starting points are so similar, their combination of buffoonish alpha males and straight-shooting female law enforcement agents (Janet Varney here, as Sheriff Evie Barret) so alike that the one Evil can’t help but pale in comparison to the other.
And even though it’s possessed by the spirit of the Evil Dead trilogy and other scream-’til-you-laugh VHS-era favorites, it lacks those films’ ingenuity for vaulting over (and/or distracting from) their shortcomings. On the screen, Stan Against Evil looks empty. In the two episodes screened for critics, Willard’s Mill appears to be a town where the vengeful spirits outnumber the living residents. While this could heighten the ominousness of the task at hand, with McGinley and/or Varney anchoring practically every scene (sometimes together, sometimes with a heavily made-up extra), the world of Stan Against Evil starts to feel mighty small, like something better suited for a Funny Or Die sketch. Contrast that with People Of Earth’s take on small-town New England, which is bursting with locations and characters, and it still has room for significant scenes that take place on alien spacecraft. Both shows are telling stories with potentially global stakes, but only one has the sense of scale to match it.
In addition to fantastical trappings and producers with Simpsons pedigrees, People Of Earth and Stan Against Evil also share this: They’re more clever than they are funny. Both are conceptually rich, but some added work is required to convert those riches into jokes. Stan’s cartoonishness can be an asset in this area, and even though it doesn’t have the resources for its world-building to pay off, it has a lot of fun with allusions to the former sheriff’s laissez-faire approach to law enforcement. (Evie, repeating a citizen’s complaint in mock idiocy: “Oh, Stan never commandeered my car!”) People Of Earth takes a cue from Cenac’s sleepy-eyed comic persona, capturing a drollness that grounds the proceedings, even when the protagonists are being sucked up by tractor beams. It’s a surrealist, New Yorker cartoon sort of matter-of-factness, best exemplified by the workplace kvetching that occurs among the aliens. Their technology may be more evolved than ours, but their interpersonal skirmishes are just as petty.
“High-concept” is just another way of saying “gimmick,” and any show of this type that’s built to last will, in some way, transcend its gimmick. There are a lot of bells and whistles to People Of Earth, but at its core, it’s a show about making first contact—between humanity and extraterrestrials, and between humanity and itself. Stan Against Evil isn’t quite there yet, and it’s early installments are still working out the finer points of its monster-of-the-week structure. (It’s here where one of the “what if?”s Gould posed at Stan Against Evil’s Television Critics Association panel—“What if my dad was Kolchak: The Night Stalker?”—is most apt.) These series are part of a larger trend toward escapist fare in TV comedy, a natural response to the rising profile of the “sadcom” in the half-hour space—not to mention a bleak state of affairs in the world beyond our screens. One offers an escape that promises to grow more immersive with time; the other opts for gory catharsis, the king of which is being hailed elsewhere in your cable package.
Reviews by Dennis Perkins will run weekly
People Of Earth
Created by: Craig Jenkins
Starring: Wyatt Cenac, Ana Gasteyer, Oscar Nuñez, Michael Cassidy, Alice Wetterlund, Luka Jones, Brian Huskey, Nancy Lenehan, Tracee Chimo, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Björn Gustafsson, Ken Hall
Debuts: Monday, October 31, at 9 p.m. Eastern on TBS
Format: Half-hour science-fiction comedy
Four episodes watched for review
Reviews by John Hugar will run weekly