If there were a marketing strategy guaranteed to make me not want to watch “Things Just Got Real,” the third episode of The Neighbors, it would be a description of this week’s commercials: “Jackie watches reality television and tries to act like one of The Real Housewives Of New Jersey.” The fact that, after a shaky start, the show succeeds in overcoming that premise, (and more of the lazy writing that’s been a hallmark of The Neighbors’ brief run) is encouraging, and largely a testament to the level of comedic commitment from Toks Olagundoye as alien matron Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
As the episode opens, Marty and Debbie Weaver are getting a little tired of their new alien pals. Maybe it’s alien leader Larry Bird attempting to fix Marty’s Trans Am and spraying Marty with oil. Or Jackie’s concept of a girl-time fingernail painting session involving a hieroglyphic representation of the Zabvronian homeworld the length of Debbie’s arm. Regardless, the Weavers decide that they need some human time, and invite a quartet of their non-alien couple friends over for some catching up. Unfortunately, that means ditching Larry and Jackie who, we learn, have been looking forward to continuing their recent tradition of inviting themselves over to feel the Weavers’ hair for an evening. (“At least they’ve stopped asking to put lotion on us,” sighs Debbie.) The problem is, their new friends’ concept of boundaries includes staring expectantly through the Weavers’ living room window and immediately assuming they, too, are invited for a night of poker and sangria. When Marty demonstrates their unwelcomeness by dropping the blinds in the aliens’ faces, it introduces both a new wacky alien trait (every Zabvronian in the neighborhood reacts in pain commensurate with Larry’s), and yet another example of the inconsistency with which the show treats logic and continuity (this new ability directly contradicts what we’ve seen before.)
Not to keep harping on details in such an inherently goofy show, but, once again, for the sake of a gag, the writing displays a, shall we say, breezy contempt for storytelling. Fine—if the aliens all react in panic, pain, or depression along with their leader, then that’s the benefit of creating a comic situation where anything can happen. Two problems, though. Firstly, there’s nothing particularly funny made of the Zabvronians’ reaction to Larry’s rejection, unless watching various aliens run around and scream, “That’s so mean!” is your thing. More importantly though, is the fact that this empathic running amok is belied by what we saw in the last episode: When Larry and company were headed to the mall in Marty’s car, they were screaming in panic, yet the Zabvronians were all outside the car smiling and waving goodbye. Again, it’s distracting and undermining when a show, even one as silly as The Neighbors, refuses to respect its own rules.
With Marty’s sulking causing not-particularly-rewarding neighborhood chaos, Jackie’s bewildered dejection at her new friend Debbie’s rejection is abjectly solitary, until alien teenager Reggie Jackson comes to the rescue with one of the Weaver’s cell phones, loaded with the aforementioned Real Housewives reality show which he’s seen his crush Amber watching. Jackie’s decision to emulate the “real housewives” of Real Housewives leads to her teasing her hair, squeezing herself into a garish (but not un-Real Housewives-worthy) gold lame dress, and adopting a Jersey Shore manner, all so she can fit in with Debbie’s other friends. It’s the sort of setup to inspire dread, but it almost works, thanks to Olagundoye’s ability to throw herself into her character with such complete, controlled abandon. Having assumed what she imagines to be the true soul of New Jersey womanhood, Jackie’s physical and verbal transformation here succeeds against all odds: I especially admired her quick turns to confess asides to the imaginary reality show camera, and how delighted she looks as her emulated rudeness causes the expected hubbub among Debbie’s decidedly normal female friends. The unalloyed relief she feels when Debbie confirms that they are actually friends is so open and genuine that, yeah, it’s even a little touching. For all the complaints that could be (and should be) leveled at The Neighbors, the performances of Olagunoye and Simon Templeman continue to wring genuine, unexpected, laughs from often uninspired material.
On the guy front, too, Templeman’s Larry is causing similar confusion as his intention of “dominating the other males” wins him a table full of poker chips and sidelong glances. Here, Larry’s story isn’t as dynamic as Jackie’s, but Templeman, too, is just fun to watch as Larry’s proper, if assumed, British archness run up against the comic nonsense. Unfortunately, Larry’s side of the big night gets saddled with a conflict with the petulant teenaged Reggie Jackson (both the character and Tim Jo’s performance thus far are just dull) and some of that all-too-common lazy writing. Suddenly, Larry’s bullheaded about the concept of fitting in with the earthlings, even though in the pilot he begged the Weavers not to leave “so we could learn things from each other.” You know, so they could fit in. Here, Larry’s stubborn reluctance to try and emulate the behavior of Marty’s guests comes off less like a character trait and more like the writers deciding, again, that a gag is a gag, regardless of the effect it has on the narrative logic of the series. His later reconciliation with Marty, though, is filled with the sort of under-the-surface exasperation that Templeman does so well. “Imagine trying to fit in to a civilization run by well-meaning but mindless gerbils. Imagine having to eat like gerbils, sleep like gerbils… just to clarify, you are to me as gerbils are to you.”
With its third episode in the books, The Neighbors continues to settle into its comfortable, unambitious groove: Set up a middlebrow sitcom premise, reveal a new would-be hilarious alien power, and hope that the performers can raise it up a bit. In “Things Just Got Real,” the bland formula tastes the best it has so far, thanks to Olagundoye and Templeman. How far they can keep this show afloat, though, is another question.
- Was it just a weak bit, or is there something Larry could have done to cause Marty’s car to spray oil all over anyone? I’m not a car guy.
- The Weavers’ kids are explained away this episode as being at their grandmother’s, which is probably a good idea. The kids aren’t bad, but in a show seemingly interested in setting up and playing out one outlandish situation a week, they’ve been mostly clutter to this point. That being said, where was little Dick Butkus? He sure wasn’t at his grandmother’s, and Ian Patrick’s hangdog formality (and just the idea of a little kid named Dick Butkus) has been good for a laugh or two thus far.
- Once again. I enjoy the subtle hints that the aliens have more going on than their buffoonishness indicates. Jackie’s casual mention of a recent “nuclear safety meeting” gives Debbie pause.
- Re: Larry watching the blank TV screen and thinking it’s a show. I wonder if he’d appreciate Derek Jarman’s Blue? The gag pays off nicely, as both Reggie and Larry gasp in shock when the TV goes into power saver mode, Larry explaining breathlessly, “I did not see that coming… ” My wife said, “It’s the end of The Sopranos!” Because she is a genius.
- At least the episode explains where Larry got a TV (he just stole it from the Weavers), but a teenage girl leaving her cellphone behind when she goes to grandma’s? Don’t think so.
- Debbie refers to Larry and Jackie as Mork and Mindy? They’re Mork and Mork, certainly.
- Marty’s bantering relationship with his eldest continues in absentia. “Now that I’ve started making eggplant instead of veal parm, she’s stopped calling my gravy ‘murder sauce.’ Which is nice.”
- I don’t know how well it fits at the end of the episode, but it’s always nice to hear some Pixies.