ABC’s The Neighbors, which debuts tonight, is a sitcom about space aliens living in the suburbs. The Neighbors is a bad sitcom. But–and I think this is important to point out–The Neighbors is not a bad sitcom because it is about space aliens living in the suburbs.
The Neighbors is not, that is, an inherently stupid show. It is in the respectable, nay the proud, tradition of the goofy, fantastical sitcom: the comedy about what happens when regular people end up living next door to witches, genies, monsters and, yes, aliens. Alf was a perfectly good sitcom! Third Rock from the Sun was, often, a better-than-good sitcom. I will go to my grave insisting that Cavemen was an unfairly maligned show that became sharply funny just before it got cancelled. I weep for the memory of Greg the Bunny.
The common thread in all these shows is that, by putting bizarre characters at their center, they find wry ways of telling us something about us boring ordinary humans. It’s an ancient premise for satire. Explorer discovers island of tiny, contentious humans! Hijinx ensue!
It needn’t be dumb; or, better, it can be dumb, broad, crude and very smart at the same time. FX’s Wilfred, which just finished its second season, is a show about a man who’s best friends with a dog, played by a man in a dog suit. It’s full of jokes about smoking pot and humping stuffed animals. It’s also a darkly funny, philosophical story about its human lead learning to reconcile his animal and civilized natures.
The Neighbors’ problem, then, isn’t that it’s about aliens. It’s that it has nothing interesting to say about people. The central human characters–the people who “represent the audience,” as network execs like to say–are Marty Weaver (Lenny Venito) and Debbie (Jami Gertz), who have moved their three kids to the burbs because blah blah blah boilerplate reason about good schools and wanting the best &c.
The Weavers are the people through whom we have to enter this world, and they have all the specificity and depth of a family from a cellphone ad. Marty’s a mildly weary schlub, Debbie’s chipper and a shade manic, and the kids are generic representations of whatever kids their age are supposed to do in sitcoms. (The teenage girl is obsessed with popularity at her new school and is difficult to shop for clothes with, e.g.)
They find a great deal on a roomy house in a posh but odd community, in which the neighbors dress identically, move in unison and are all named for famous athletes. (This is the funniest joke on the show. It is also the most endlessly riffed on and repeated, long after it ceases to be funny.) The crisply spoken Larry Bird (Simon Templeman) and wife Jackie Joyner-Kersee (Toks Olagundoye) introduce themselves, and a few wacky misunderstanding later, we learn that they, their friends and kids are all alien lizard-people, in human guise, stranded on Earth for a decade.
The aliens, for all their conformist, highly mannered behavior, are actually more individual, and better performed, than the Weavers. (Templeman, in particular, plays Larry Bird as an authoritarian who turns out to be a softie under his skin, or rather, under both of them.) But in the two episodes ABC sent to critics, the show doesn’t do as much with the absurd situation as does ABC’s Suburgatory, which has the disadvantage of being entirely about humans. It turns out suburban life is funny because, um, everybody has crazy-neat lawns! People go to malls for fun! Man, shopping sure can be nuts! And raising teenagers–whew, amirite?
Cavemen–that underestimated work of 21st-century satire–started weak and got written off too, so maybe I’ll check back at some point. But for a bizarre comedy with the potential for some really pointed wackiness, this alien vehicle doesn’t get off the ground.