It’s Halloween on The Neighbors (and for the neighbors) and that means, well, let’s see if you can guess. Will the Zabvronians comically misunderstand the human holiday and learn a lesson about fitting into Earth society? Will the Weavers exasperatedly explain a concept of human culture to their new alien pals Larry Bird and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, all the while experiencing a related, but more mundane, lesson in adaptation themselves? Will the show go for gags that violate whatever tenuous continuity it has set up so far? Will there be at least one unintentionally smutty double entendre from the aliens that could make only the least-discriminating laugh? Do the Zabvronians cry green goop from their ears? (The answer to all these questions is “yes,” by the way.)
By this, its fifth episode, The Neighbors has sufficiently made its modest ambitions clear, and viewers have, undoubtedly, adjusted their expectations accordingly. This is a family comedy, an appellation that’s not a bad thing in and of itself, but is often a synonym for “inoffensive and pleasant,” which is as good a description of The Neighbors as any. Not that there isn’t a place for unassuming family entertainment on TV, but there have been enough glimmers of intelligent weirdness around the margins of The Neighbors’ brief run that it’s now-undeniable featherweight blandness is something of a shame.
Take tonight’s episode: The Weavers are casing their new suburban digs like second-story men, evaluating which of their new (non-alien) suburbanite neighbors are likely to have the best candy. See, Marty and Debbie really love Halloween, affording as it does some bonding time with their three kids. Upon retuning to their own gated community however, they find the Zabvronians, under the direction of leader Larry Bird, setting up perimeter defenses (including an electrified fence and flaming arrows) in order to ward off the annual October 31 swarms of little demon creatures. And while the straight-faced silliness of Jackie Joyner-Kersee gravely asserting, “We will rain hellfire and fury upon them!” and, upon a flaming arrow setting a child-sized effigy ablaze, Larry Bird gleefully gloating, “ Good! Burn, little one!” continues that duo’s estimable run of finding the oddball laughs in the show, the rest of “Halloween-ween” relies on the most ordinary and well-worn jokes and conflicts.
The Weavers’ side of the episode succumbs, much as last episode did, to the Weaver kids. Nothing against Clara Mamet, Max Charles, or Isabella Cramp, but, with such a high-concept premise to unpack every week, the kids’ contributions to each episode have often felt tacked on. When placed front-and-center as the are here, the writing does little to differentiate them or their stories from thousands of TV children before. Here, the kids are growing up: Teenaged Amber forgoes her traditional political-themed tag-team with Debbie in favor of the “slutty nurse” route, Max ditches his planned Nemo/Marlin pairing with Marty, and little Abby wants to go to the doors on her own. I don’t know where “the kids don’t need us any more” plot lands on the “most inevitable family sitcom tropes” list, but top 10 would be a safe bet, and The Neighbors can’t find a single memorable joke to liven it up. (Lenny Venito’s enthusiastically mediocre Albert Brooks impression comes closest.)
On the alien front, as usual, things are a bit more lively, if only because Simon Templeman and Toks Olagundoye throw themselves into their characters with such commitment. It seems that Larry Bird, convinced that each annual invasion of miniature goblins, zombies, and adorable ladybugs is an imminent danger to his people, has built his reputation as supreme leader on his prowess in repelling the Halloween hordes. Once the Weavers customarily explain our human ways to everyone, however, Larry finds himself in danger of losing authority, and so convinces his followers that there’s still a danger, only to have the more sensible Jackie persuade him to tell the aliens the truth. While there might be some intent at political satire in there somewhere (“It’s my war and I want to keep it,” pouts Larry), this is all pretty perfunctory stuff. Even the reliably funny Templeman and Olagundoye aren’t given any good lines.
In the end, the Weavers learn to let go a little, the Weaver kids learn to come back a little, Larry Bird learns to let go a little, and everybody eats candy.
Maybe that’s the best description of The Neighbors…
- Larry apparently does everyone’s hair.
- This week’s truly groan-worthy double entendre, presented without further comment: “Tonight our little Dick turns tricks for the Weavers.”
- I continue to be tickled by Ian Patrick as little Dick Butkus. This week he dresses up as Debbie, because she’s someone he admires, and his earnest formality as he too-accurately imitates the Weavers’ dynamic (with Marty represented by a hand puppet) causes some friction. (As Marty puppet: “What your mother said—I have no opinions of my own.”)
- One last logical quibble: It’s been established that the Zabvronians don’t watch TV or go to the movies, so how does Jackie know enough about The Hunger Games to immediately put together a perfect Effie Trinket costume? And, hey, wait a minute, how did she get her hands on it? They don’t leave the compound, and they don’t have things delivered by UPS or anything. And hey—for that matter, where did Jackie get that sleazy Real Housewives dress a couple of episodes ago? And when Larry Bird is clearly upset at the Weavers’ undermining his authority, why are all the assembled aliens smiling and happy, even though his emotions supposedly affect every other Zabvronian? These are the kind of things that keep me up at night…
- If you detect a certain elegiac tone to this week’s review, it’s because The A.V. Club, in its infinite wisdom, has decided that enough’s enough, and that this will be the end of our regular coverage of The Neighbors for now. Thanks to everyone who read and commented on this, my first regular-series gig—I look forward to arguing with all of you on something else soon.