The Neighbors debuts tonight on ABC at 9:30 p.m. Eastern.
Erik Adams: Thus far this television season, viewers have been treated to a look at Norman Lear through a Ryan Murphy filter (The New Normal) and David Kohan and Max Mutchnick’s time-displaced follow up to Will & Grace (Partners). True to its science-fiction roots, ABC’s The Neighbors offers another comedic time warp, this one a turn-back-the-decades trip that lands in the era of high-concept fantasy sitcoms like Bewitched, I Dream Of Jeannie, The Addams Family, and, most pertinent to The Neighbors, My Favorite Martian. That Ray Walston-Bill Bixby vehicle doesn’t hold the exclusive rights on the “extraterrestrials living secretly among humans” sitcom—lest we forget 3rd Rock From The Sun and Mork & Mindy—but the family-friendliness of The Neighbors certainly recalls the oft-syndicated, fantastical comedies of old. It also, like a half-hour of My Favorite Martian, feels incredibly stale in 2012.
If there’s a plus to The Neighbors’ pilot episode, it’s that the show doesn’t throw its back out trying to hide the antennae of an entire planned community of Uncle Martins. Instead, the seemingly harmless Zabvronians reveal their true selves to their new neighbors—New York transplants the Weavers: Marty (Lenny Venito), his boy Max (Max Charles), daughters Amber (Clara Mamet) and Abby (Isabella Cramp), and Debbie (Jami Gertz) his wife—near the halfway point of the première. Their mass cover blown, the series is then freed to lay out what looks to be its bread and butter: stories that teach the logical, calculating Zabvronians about humanity, while also providing some leavening perspective on the Weavers’ various family squabbles.
Remove the aliens from the equation, and The Neighbors is simply a dull variation on the family-hour comedies ABC has built around Modern Family in recent years. In the pilot, Marty and Debbie learn a lesson about the importance of communication in a marriage; in the second episode screened for critics, “Journey To The Center Of The Mall,” Max learns how much his little sister cares for him, while their big sis Amber gets a self-esteem boost from an admirer who just so happens to have green scaly skin under his general-issue golf apparel. No reason the Hecks, Altmans, and Pritchett/Dunphy/Tucker/Delgado clans can’t learn the same lesson—with less hokey flair.
Has it not yet been mentioned that the Zabvronians’ society-within-a-society is masked by the co-option of famous athletes’ names and a wardrobe that corresponds to their adopted home’s adjacent golf course? Because the first two episodes go to great pains to underline this fact. As exemplified by Zabvron’s first couple, Larry Bird (Simon Templeman) and Jackie Joyner-Kersee (Toks Olagundoye), the Zabvronians are a cluster of zany “alien” characteristics: Their dialogue is overly formal, they give bizarre presents to their new human friends (a life-sized toothpick statue of Marty whose “eyes are real”), and show emotion by weeping Ecto Cooler from their ears. There’s the occasional attempt to make Larry and Jackie (and their two sons, Reggie Jackson and Dick Butkus) full-fledged characters, but for the most part, they’re just sentient funhouse mirrors for the Weavers. Because of this, the world of the show feels awfully small—the trip to the mall in episode two is a chance to test these characters and relationships in a new environment, but it also comes off as an inelegant excuse to escape the hermetically sealed setting of the cul-de-sac.
Of course, to start digging this deeply in The Neighbors is beyond the point. This is a fluffy little show made to be watched as a family, as the résumé of its creator, Cars screenwriter Dan Fogelman, attests. And while it isn’t entirely without laughs, The Neighbors is nonetheless hurt by proximity: It debuts as part of a programming bloc that’s demonstrated time and again that sitcoms can tell funny, authentic, and engaging domestic stories without the magical trappings of old Nick At Nite staples. Meanwhile, Fogelman’s previous collaborators at Disney animation are proving with Gravity Falls that the realms of science fiction, fantasy, and horror don’t have to be populated by the most basic of stock characters. If the Weavers can tap into the humanity of Larry Bird and family, why can’t the Zabvronians bring out the weird in the Weavers?
One modern characteristic that The Neighbors boasts that those old sitcoms didn’t is its feint toward backstory and serialization. Surely, these visitors from the planet Zabvron wouldn’t have settled in a sun-dappled subdivision without a reason, which is elaborated upon and largely discarded during the première. The “scouting mission” premise is still hanging out there, threatening to make trouble for the Weavers and Bird-Joyner-Kersees at season-finale time—but it’s also worth as much to the overall quality of the series as the throwaway jokes about Zabvronian children being carried by the males of the species. (Can you imagine? Guys literally with kids?) The appeal of previous TV ETs like Uncle Martin, Mork from Ork, and Dick Solomon lays not in retractable antennae and Big Giant Heads, but rather in the way they interacted with the humans in their lives, ultimately seen as more alike than different from the natives of this big blue marble. For The Neighbors to rise to that level, it’ll require some more common ground between the Weavers and the Zabvrons that isn’t covered in green goop.
Dennis Perkins: Much of the pre-broadcast grief heaped upon The Neighbors has centered on its high-concept setup, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with a goofy premise. I mean “cheerleader with silly name fights vampires” worked out just fine for everybody. Unfortunately, The Neighbors doesn’t bring much that’s new to the fantasy-sitcom genre, and what charms it has are almost incidental to the central premise. Love ’em or loathe ’em, shows like 3rd Rock From The Sun and Mork & Mindy built up their comic momentum from a combination of often inspired manic performances and a welcome sense of unpredictability: When you’ve got a John Lithgow or Robin Williams as your focal point, their loony fearlessness enhances the silliness of the premise and carries the viewer along with them. But while you can pick out a sly chuckle or two from The Neighbors, most of the time its lower-key blandness leaves too much time to pick apart what’s wrong with it.
Not that low-key doesn’t have its virtues. As the patriarch of the human family, Lenny Venito invests his character with the same sort of pop-eyed, deadpan humor he brought to the last few seasons of The Sopranos (and his delivery of the line, “What, are you guys dancin’ a little bit?” was the single funniest moment of the first season of Flight Of The Conchords). Working without the implied menace of his usual tough guys, Venito’s Marty Weaver provides an endearingly ordinary center. His aspirational working stiff has developed an underdog’s irony to cope with all of his life’s pressures and craziness, even before his new neighbors start crying green goop from their ears. Plus, it’s nice to see a “that guy” character actor get a shot at a network lead for a change. As Marty’s other half Debbie Weaver, Jami Gertz also earns some laughs by virtue of underplaying in the face of, say, watching your hostess throw the dirty dinner dishes casually out the window. Sadly, more often Venito and Gertz are required to just stare and yell in would-be comic shock.
Of course, that aforementioned wackiness is the heart of such a premise-heavy show, and therein lies much of The Neighbors’ problems. As a group, the Zabvronians are self-consciously weird and adorable, with each reveal of their alien quirks deployed in anticipation that viewers will find their sports legend-derived pseudonyms hilarious every time. (Granted, a little kid called “Dick Butkus” stays funny for a while.) As the Zabvronians’ leader Larry Bird (see?), Simon Templeman makes his case to be The Neighbors’ breakout character (should the show survive past its initial order), his plummy British-ness seasoned with a sly humor not unlike Marty’s. Indeed, their first-episode bonding over beers on Marty’s patio lays a nicely believable foundation of simpatico world- (or worlds-) weariness and shared humor. As Larry’s wife, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Toks Olagundoye, too, brings a specific comic energy to her role: Her enthusiastic “Kill Larry Bird!” in response to Debbie’s rhetorical question about how to deal with her mate’s insensitivity endows Jackie with a welcome weirdness the show could use more of.
As with the funny names, however, The Neighbors seems content too often to go for the obvious “wacky alien” gag, often at the expense of logic. One key to having an audience accept your premise is to play by your own rules. No matter how convoluted or outlandish a fictional world, people will be more inclined to stick with it as long as your rules remain consistent, but in The Neighbors, a gag is a gag, no matter if it takes the viewer out of the experience. It’s mildly funny to have the Weavers wake up to the sight of neighbors not knowing how to use hedge trimmers or garden hoses properly, but then you start wondering how in the hell their insulated community is so perfectly groomed. If the aliens have been here for 10 years and seem to eat by incessantly reading our books, then why, in the second episode, have they no concept of what a mall is? And why are they so afraid of riding in Marty’s car when, presumably, they know what cars are and ride around in golf carts every day? This carelessly breezy approach to its own world extends to the pacing of the pilot as well. The Neighbors is in such a rush to settle into its comfy “hijinks of the week” structure that it whooshes right past the central reveal by the 11-minute mark in order to set up a plot about Larry Bird needing to respect Jackie Joyner-Kersee that wouldn’t feel out of place on The Honeymooners. Except, you know, with kooky alien make-up sex.