Pop culture references in TV shows are like album samples: They can be used with canny utility in service of something new, or recycled to serve up artless fodder for know-it-alls. In that respect, Season 1 of The Neighbors was more Paul’s Boutique than Girl Talk. After enduring weeks of critical abuse, the out-of-place sitcom about out-of-this-world aliens living next door to the vanilla Weaver family in suburban New Jersey basically said, “Fuck it.” Standout, standalone episodes including “Larry Bird Presents an Oscar-Winning Film by Larry Bird” and “Sing like a Larry Bird” invited us in with allusions to Lincoln, Glee and other celebrated post-aughts pap, only to indict their middlebrow sanctimony with elaborate, faux-Emmy-bait send-ups.
It’s too soon to tell, but if “Family Conference” is any indication, we might be in for a mash-up this season. Or Smash-up, given tonight’s poke at NBC’s axed musical (softened with Larry’s empathetic acknowledgment of its “pity move to Fridays”), one of several targets from a random spray of zeitgeists that ranged from a fumbling DJ Jazzy Jeff punchline to an absurdly protracted (and kind of amazing) tete a tete between Debbie and Marty about Terms of Endearment’s gender-polarization. Jerry Springer even gets his own hologram. It all makes one gets the feeling that their recent surge of goodwill provoked a bit of, “Uh-oh, how do we keep this up?” insecurity. Which is understandable. But hopefully, they don’t lose confidence in what made The Neighbors so winning even before answering its detractors: a commitment to crafting a classically wholesome, slightly off sitcom that's charmingly dated yet slyly progressive.
“Family Conference” primarily tackles the budding romance between brainy Reggie and surly Amber, climaxing with the titular Weaver-Bird roundtable to determine their compatibility—with each other and as part of the greater neighborly dynamic. The proceedings are innocent enough. There are a lot of gags about the Bird-Kersees' 23rd century technology for assessing chemistry (including aforementioned, pixilated Jerry Springer counsel) and the Weaver kids’ alarming ease at adapting. And Dick Butkus, while sorely marginal, scores the biggest laugh by informing Carlos the janitor that this “is not a good time” to mop the floors of their super-secret underground alien war room. But the real payoff is how this silly scene escalates into each set of parents’ veiled coming clean about their discomfort with an interracial (let alone species) coupling.
“Family Conference” also demonstrates one of The Neighbors’ growing confidences by giving the entire lead cast at least one laugh-out-loud line, whether it’s Debbie demurring a strenuous physical task since she’s “wearing an old nursing bra because it’s laundry day” or Marty saying what we’ve all been thinking when he sensibly vents, “How many spaceships have to land in New Jersey before NASA notices?” It’s not quite Modern Family or even That ’70s Show, but all 10 of the Weavers and Bird-Kersees have multiple dimensions, regardless of whether they arrived from an interplanetary one.
In lieu of a slight Dick script (always fun to write), Tim Jo in particular gets to step up as the newly empowered Reggie, whose delivery makes all the difference when assuring everyone Amber will eventually “put a little Mickey Mantle in my bewy” in his queasiest baby talk, and that she does indeed smile with full teeth because he’s “felt them all with my tongue.” He’s the perfect balance of stiff extra terrestrial and oblivious sweetheart.
With this kind of blossoming ensemble and such a strong episodic arc to start Season 2—one that picks up from where we last left these characters and eases toward the finessing of timely social commentary—all the quipping about Shark Tank and anachronistic Mission: Impossible parody sequences feel better suited for Family Guy than this curious but compelling hybrid series. The Neighbors has all the right parts, and hopefully, “Family Conference” is a relatively minor struggle finding balance on the way to its sum potential.
- To Marty, it’s all quite simple: Reggie is sweet, harmless and “definitely hairless.”
- I do totally get “The Terms of Endearment fight” and can bet they were waiting for an episode to fit that one in, but am I the only male who usually takes Debbie’s side?
- I, too, wish Reggie was pocket-sized so Jackie could carry him in her breast pocket.
- That was some solid catch-up exposition from Larry on the Season 1 finale.
- Doesn’t everybody have a restaurant ownership fantasy like Debbie?
- That little potato/potahto staff/stahf aside between Jackie and Debbie is what this show needs more of.
- I do appreciate the continuity of Jackie putting her outfit back on post-action sequence.
- Who knew Marty’s childhood was such a bummer?
- Another nice story being told, both via and apart from Terms of Endearment banter, was the way mothers smother for affection… but are always what’s best.
- Super funny final sit-down with the Bird-Kersees about their financial straits. As Dick hinted, should be amusing to witness Larry’s forays into full-time employment.
- Diet Dr. Pepper, eh?