Making a TV pilot is a tricky business, and viewers (and reviewers) are often wise to recognize that the daunting task of introducing an entire world of characters and situations sometimes results in a top-heavy heap of exposition, and to adjust their expectations accordingly. (Even Tina Fey herself has gone on record as thinking the 30 Rock pilot was a mess.) For many shows, the second episode is where viewers start to get a real sense of where the show’s creators want the series to go. Unfortunately, the second episode of The Neighbors suggests that creator Dan Fogelman’s ambitions are even more modest than the pilot indicated.
In our tag-team review last week, both Erik Adams and I noted the surprising abruptness of the big reveal: The Weaver family, new arrivals in a gated community, discover that their oddball new neighbors are, in fact, froggy, lizard-y aliens called the Zabvronians. Pulling the trigger on such a central secret halfway through the first episode could, as Erik maintains, be a relief, sparing us from a long, drawn-out series of ALF-like escapades wherein the Weavers catch a glimpse of some wacky alien behavior only to have it explained away week after week (until sweeps). Sadly, the reason behind getting the Weavers and their alien neighbors on the same page so soon appears to be in the interest of making way for some startlingly ordinary sitcom setups. Last week, the show sped past its main comic premise in order to have both the Weavers and their new alien pals Larry Bird and Jackie Joyner-Kersee learn the groundbreaking lesson that husbands should treat their wives as equals. This week’s episode, “Journey To The Center Of The Mall,” takes on the following ideas: Parents worry about their kids growing up too fast, teenage girls and their mothers sometimes don’t get along, and young siblings, um, also sometimes don’t get along. Throw in the groundwork for a predictable (if, admittedly, inter-species) teenage romance, and you’ve got all the makings for 1963’s least-ambitious family entertainment, especially when Jami Gertz’s Debbie Weaver is given the sort of shopping obsession and “it’s a mother’s job to worry” lines that Wilma Flintstone used to get saddled with.
It’s a shame, as the episode opens with the sort of effective comic weirdness the show’s premise should yield effortlessly. The Weavers, enjoying a brisk and cheery power walk through their new neighborhood, exchange pleasantries with neighbors named Johnny Unitas and Mary Lou Retton before coming upon Larry Bird and Jackie Joyner-Kersee loading the bound and gagged Weaver kids into their flying saucer. Cue the end of Debbie’s dream sequence and another in a series of late night summit meetings where the Weavers pepper the wearily polite Larry and Jackie with questions designed to reassure them that the aliens aren’t here to eat everybody. Sure, the Weavers seemed to have gotten such fears largely out of their system by the end of the pilot, but it’s reasonable they’d resurface, and the dialogue here has a snappy energy to it, especially as Simon Templeman’s Larry Bird allows some snippiness to penetrate his customary formality. (“Look, we don’t want your dumb kids, okay?) And his rapid-fire Q&A with Lenny Venito’s Marty has its own comic imagination too, with Marty, clearly less worried about the aliens’ plans than Debbie (because all mothers worry, you see), having fun finding stuff out: It’s like the old Saturday Night Live sketch where recently deceased John Laroquette gets to ask Dana Carvey’s angel the answers to any question (“Beatles or Stones?” “Beatles”). And Larry’s quickly elusive response to whether or not there’s a God (“Don’t worry about it”) is, again, the sort of evocative laugh the show could use a lot more of.
Instead, “Journey To The Center Of The Mall,” sends the Weavers and the Zavbronians to, you guessed it, the mall, on the flimsy pretext of Debbie finding the alien kids (cutely formal Dick Butkus and sullenly unmemorable Reggie Jackson) some new school clothes. See, Larry and Jackie have become convinced that their previously home-schooled “loin fruit” (a repeated joke the show persistently imagines hilarious) should head to public school, and their matching golf outfits, as Marty explains, would make them look like nerds. (Templeman’s horrified reaction to that possibility is another example of the actor making something out of nothing.) Once there, the aforementioned plotlines kick in, each betraying a wearying lack of imagination and a reliance on obvious, and often illogical, gags.
As pointed out last week, The Neighbors is displaying an irksome tendency to violate its own internal logic (such as it is) for the sake of the joke. The aliens collectively freak out at the prospect of a ride in Marty’s minivan (a little Christopher Cross cools them out), but they themselves drive around in golf carts and, voracious readers of earth books, undoubtedly know what cars are. Larry knows people wear clothes, so his pantsless mall modeling of a new jacket makes no damned sense. And even though their fellow aliens are clearly familiar with the concept of the mall, even asking them which local mall they’re going to, the Bird/Joyner-Kersee family reacts in goggle-eyed horror to mall staples like escalators, mannequins, massage chairs, and fat families gorging themselves at the food court.
Is it overthinking things to get hung up on details like these in such an inherently silly show? Perhaps. But there’s enough promisingly funny stuff around the edges of The Neighbors that its a shame the writers seem content to go for the easiest laughs and most hackneyed sentiment. Plus, the world of The Neighbors remains resolutely small: From a premise replete with infinite comic possibilities, the show thus far narrows its focus to malls, dinner tables, and studio lot street sets, and the Zabvronians, apart from a few offhand hints at a larger or darker inner life, are essentially just a community of Cousin Balkis. Templeman and the endearingly game Toks Olagundoye continue to wring some unexpected laughs as the alien duo, mainly through underplaying and pure comedic commitment, but they’re often succeeding in spite of the writing, which only seems to be settling into the laziest of grooves.
- It’s probably a bad sign that the show’s IMDb page doesn’t have the complete cast listings, right?
- The show’s dogged belief that the aliens’ athlete-derived names are hilarious would be endearing, if it weren’t so annoying. Also llamas.
- “We are the first to leave the confines of the community.” You know, except the two Zabvronians who sold their home and left in the pilot...
- That’s mimetic creature-master Doug Jones (Pan’s Labyrinth) as Larry Bird’s potential rival Dominique Wilkins. Unfortunately, the show has yet to give him a chance to do anything.
- Hanging plot threads: the Zabvronians’ observation mission, the two Zabvronians who’ve left the compound, and Larry Bird’s possible usurpation by Jones’ ambitious Dominique Wilkins. Confidence that The Neighbors intends/will have time to follow up on any of those threads: not so much.
- The Zabvronians’ true form is shown sparingly over the first two episodes, but looks like a cross between D&D creatures the Kuo-toa (minus the diaper) and the monster from Horror of Party Beach (minus the hot dog mouth).
- The Neighbors continues to punch its hackiest lines. Last week: “I fear our little Dick has exposed himself again.” This week: “Eat it, Dominique Wilkins!”
- Michael Bay’s an alien? Makes sense...