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TV Tonight: The Neighbors Is Bad, But Not for the Reason You Might Think

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ABC/KAREN NEAL

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.

8 comments
gmmarin75
gmmarin75

I enjoy the show with my son. It's nice to have a show everyone can watch and not be about police, court, and fake reality based shows, yawwwwn. Compared to 3rd Rock from the Sun? that's apples to oranges because they never really acted that differently; just like slightly strange humans. However, I did like 3rd Rock and Alf, which were both from two different decades, yet here we are....in a different decade again. The concept here is completely different and yes it's absolutely silly, as were the others? We have enough reality running around. Silly can be nice. The quips are appropriately placed. The Larry Bird character has really come around with taking jabs at Marty; Larry being my favorite character now. Kid friendly, but enough adult content that may allow some things to go over kids heads. The show has obviously proven the author of this article wrong. His opinion against the 6 million who watch it.....hmmmm. Must not be that bad. I'll take the author's opinion for what it's worth, just his opinion because he has not provided anything of value such as statistics to back up his statements.

GeraldVandeveer
GeraldVandeveer

The show is great. I had low expectations, but I have been pleasantly surprised. They pulled it together very nicely.

chupkar
chupkar

I am beginning to become oddly fond of this show. Hated the first one, but now, getting quite attached. It's sweet. We need more sweet in the world.

Halloween dog costumes
Halloween dog costumes

I'll watch anything with Jami Gertz in it...at least once. Everything is subjective and your opinion is just as unimportant as anyone elses.

Joshua Cramblet
Joshua Cramblet

Who really cares whether or not you like anything?  Everything is subjective and your opinion is just as unimportant as anyone elses.

dantsea
dantsea

Well, Joshua, we know you care. Or did you simply see a form on the Internet you could fill out and tried your hardest to participate? Anyway, you work at WalMart, lol.

DwDunphy
DwDunphy

I'll watch anything with Jami Gertz in it...at least once. She was in Square Pegs, people!

MrBilliam
MrBilliam

Poor, poor Greg the Bunny.