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Resident Alien's Chris Sheridan reveals his personal UFO tale and comic Easter eggs that inspired the series
Sometimes a person's life event will perfectly set them up for a specific gig, and Resident Alien executive producer/writer Chris Sheridan is an out-of-this-world example of such fortuitous fate. Let him set the stage: It's 20 years ago on one of the islands of the Bahamas. At about 10 p.m. on a Sunday, Sheridan and his then-wife are on their honeymoon enjoying a stroll along the beach. As they meander in romantic bliss, both see a dot rise up from the horizon. A star? Nope, because the dot turns into a noiseless, triangle-shaped ship with six circular lights on the bottom, sweeping the beach and coming right at them.
Frozen in shock, they watched the lights scan over them, and then the craft eventually moved away, leaving behind two very weirded-out humans. "I'm not saying it was aliens, although obviously it was," Sheridan says with a smile as he relays the story to SYFY WIRE as we talk about his shepherding of the Dark Horse comic Resident Alien to the screen. "But it was certainly something that was not something that we know we have. And it's not as rare as people think. We're trained to dismiss it as, 'It can't be, because I'd be a crazy person if I thought that.' All I can say is what I saw. It moved way faster than anything we know we have and I'm also convinced it's still from alien technology."
What better guy to run a television series about an alien who crash-lands on Earth and hijacks the visage of a local doctor to live amongst us, right? It's that personal story, and certainly Sheridan's 17 years as an Emmy‑nominated writer and producer on Family Guy, that makes him uniquely suited to bringing the darkly comedic scripted series to life.
The SYFY adaptation of Peter Hogan and artist Steve Parkhouse's Dark Horse comic of the same name stars Alan Tudyk as that alien who hijacks Dr. Harry Vanderspeigle's body and then has to help figure out a murder in the small town of Patience, Colorado. The series is Sheridan's first time running a live-action series, and he admits it's been a fun process turning the comic run into the spine of the TV series.
"I took the storyline from the first graphic novel ["Welcome to Earth!"], which is the death of Sam Hodges, and I'm arcing that out for the first season as the town story and Harry, the alien story, is about him coming to terms with his emotions," Sheridan explains.
"And I am trying to pick and choose stuff from the comics for the fans," he continues. "The jacket that Asta Twelvetrees [Sara Tomko] wears is from the comic. We had that made, specifically. In the comic, there's an image inside and out of this diner in town. We took the picture from the comic, and gave it to our production designer, Michael Joy, who's brilliant, to design a diner for us. And in the comic, one of the nurse's names is Ellen, so we called our nurse, Ellen. In the comic, the mayor is Bert Hawthorne. But he was older, in his 60s or 70s. We did a younger guy and made it Ben Hawthorne."
But the series also goes its own way, as adaptations tend to do when transitioning from one medium to another. Sheridan says in his mind the key to making the high-concept idea work in a real-life narrative was to make the series as grounded as possible. "We all want it to feel plausible," he says. "There's a goofy way to do it, and for the people who believe it, there's things that they believe that are real. And we try to sink into some of those things."
In particular, Sheridan says audiences should look out for some actual historical UFO lore that has come to be accepted as fact in the series. "I want it all to feel authentic and real," he explains. "And I think one of the tricks with comedic shows is that sometimes you get funny and it gets broad, and then the reality sort of falls away. The hard thing is staying funny when you're funny, but not in a way that it becomes a cartoon and unreal. As soon as it becomes unreal, then the real stuff, the stakes of the threats of this alien, that all starts to be diminished."
And then there are the pesky limitations of live-action budgets. Not every sci-fi series has a Game of Thrones budget or the unfettered freedom that working in animation gives to storytellers, which Sheridan has come to learn on Resident Alien. "There's financial restrictions and just world restrictions. It's not a cartoon, so you can't go crazy," he admits. "But the restrictions are sort of helpful because it at least puts you in a box that you can play in. And there are some very cool things that are part of [the series] because the show does have some scope and some beautiful locations this year, which I love."
Those creative constraints also mean that the series gets to be impactful about when and how we see Harry in his natural alien form. "If we're gonna see the full-body alien, it's gotta be for a story reason," Sheridan says. "Either it makes a visual funnier, or it's scarier, or something like that. We'll use it sporadically. Mostly, we are reminding the audience that he's an alien through some reflections. And through Max being able to see him as an alien."
Sheridan says the more difficult part was figuring out the actual look for their extraterrestrial, which took a lot more time than expected. The final look was developed by him and pilot director, David Dobkin. "Part of me wanted to just do what was in the graphic novel," he explains. "But the only problem with that — and it's a brilliant design that Steve Parkhouse drew — but it just looks a little too human. And because the emotional arc for Harry in the season is going from being fully alien to learning emotions and slowly becoming more human, I wanted to make him look even less human so we had further to go. And it's so hard because you've seen so many versions of aliens that there's nothing you haven't seen. I have a picture in my head of what I think aliens look like, and we added some things like he's got the little arms which we added for fun. But mostly, I wanted him to look as [inhuman] as possible, so the audience just inherently knew that he's dangerous, and isn't like us. But also that they know that he's got a long way to go to be like us."
With such a strong cast led by Tudyk's fearless physical comedy inhabiting Harry, we asked what elements emerged as some of his favorites of the series. Sheridan quickly cited the dynamic between Harry and the lone town resident who can see him for what he truly is, young Max (Judah Prehn). Instead of the expected fear-based relationship, the two face off against one another like they're in their own private Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote series.
Sheridan laughs, saying: "I discovered [that] in the process of thinking about how I want these characters to come together. It's fun having the kid be an adversary and having Harry want to get rid of him. But to not be repetitive, you've got to find different ways to do that... He's gonna try to outsmart him and trick him. I like that they're combative and what's become funny in the show that we found is not necessarily the 10-year-old kid rising to Harry's level, but the 40-year-old man sinking to the child's level. When they're arguing or fighting, it's two 10-year-olds fighting. Harry doesn't know social norms. In the same way that kids are very immature, Harry's going through that same arc."
He's also quick to give kudos to the friendship between Asta and D'arcy (Alice Wetterlund) for adding a delightful layer of depth to the series. "I created the D'arcy character to help balance out the Asta character," he reveals. "Asta has a very dark storyline at first. And originally, I wanted D'arcy to be this ball of happiness and light to balance her out. What happened was then Alice Wetterlund came in, and she's a better version of what I wanted. She's so funny. She has a dark sense of humor and is very sardonic, and very sarcastic. And Sara is such a great actress that she can organically pull herself out of that darkness into D'arcy's lightness. And I feel like we don't see it enough, just two women on screen together, having fun and being friends and giving each other shit. And not just talking about men. They do that so well."
Looking forward to where Resident Alien and Harry's arc might go if it gets picked up for more seasons, Sheridan says he's already inspired by a storyline in the comics for the next arc. And he specifically held back on elements from the comics, like flashbacks to alien Harry's family back home, to save them for the future. "It's creating a little bit of that slow burn," he shares. "I do want Harry to be isolated. I want people to have the question, 'But what is it like there?' So that when we do it, or if we do it — and to be honest, I don't know yet, if we will, — we're answering a question from the audience, providing something that they really want at that point. And I think that'll help that process."
Resident Alien premieres on SYFY on Jan. 27 at 10 p.m. ET.