Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Neighbors: “Neighbours”

Illustration for article titled The Neighbors: “Neighbours”

The thing that makes me laugh harder than anything else Is weirdness. It’s like I never moved past that stage you hit as a young kid, where you laugh at, like, a car full of water, because cars aren’t bathtubs, silly. Sure, I can appreciate some witty wordplay. I like a good pop culture reference. I can even get into some great slapstick. But nothing is as funny to me as some weird joke that points out the underlying surreal nature of everyday life. Maybe it’s that fact—or maybe it’s the fact that I never have to think about the show critically, thus making it not seem like “work”—that leads me to laugh at The Neighbors more than just about any other show on TV, give or take whatever New Girl or Bob’s Burgers (the current gold standards of combining strong storytelling and strong joke writing right now) are up to that week.

And yet I don’t know if I’d be really sad if The Neighbors was canceled, as it very well seems the show might be after the first two weeks of ratings are in for its second season. The show is often very funny to me—particularly when it comes to the alien half of the series—but I’m not sure how attached to the characters I am beyond enjoying the actors playing them. I would probably watch Toks Olagundoye and Simon Templeman read the phone book, so much do they add to whatever they get on the page, and I’ve even come to enjoy most of the kids. Marty and Debbie Weaver are less interesting to me, because they’re meant to be the “normal” ones in this whole equation, but it’s not like Lenny Venito and Jami Gertz are sucking it up out there. The cast is pretty bright, and they can occasionally paper over thinner material.

That doesn’t extend to a plot about how Marty is upset about how he had trouble maintaining an erection during “date night” with his wife. All of this is expressed in coded language, the better to not terrify the family hour audience, but, sad to say, Marty and Debbie have become the low-level white noise that contrasts to the rest of the wackiness going on around them. Maybe a sitcom needs that to keep the weirder half of things from getting to be too much, but I don’t know that I’ve ever been all that interested in a story about Marty and Debbie, outside of the times they hang out with Larry and Jackie.

Take, for instance, the bit at the top of the episode when Debbie gets Jackie to construct a dream board. Setting aside the fact that this is a storyline seemingly every sitcom on TV did two years ago and also setting aside the fact that nobody in real life has ever done this, this was a promising setup for a storyline, particularly once I saw that Jackie’s dream board consisted mostly of weird little patterns and colors and such. (Debbie’s was mostly photos of shirtless men and risotto.) I like the idea of the two starting a business together, and their twin motivations—Jackie needs to make money to keep her family financially solvent; Debbie is looking for fulfillment—seem to underline why the two families command such different levels of my interest. But just as I was starting to think about all of this, Debbie headed off to a plot about Marty’s failed erection, while Jackie headed off to “Salsa Castle,” a medieval-themed fast food taco joint where she knighted burritos with a sword that oozed cheese.

That right there probably underlines why The Neighbors is still not a top-flight show. There’s so much invention and humor in the alien half of things that it makes the Weaver half of things all the more disappointing when it insists on sticking to standard family sitcom storylines and tropes. The whole idea of Salsa Castle felt like one of those weird sight gags in the background of an old Simpsons episode that had been fleshed out for some reason, and once you place the ready-for-anything Olagundoye in that milieu and let her get every laugh possible out of knighting a burrito, you’re really cooking with gas. (Also helping matters: Her fellow wage slave is a guy who trained to be a mime and exits scenes by miming riding down on an elevator.)

Plus, Lucy Davis! Lucy Davis makes everything better, and she dug into something about the Bird-Kersees that I had honestly never considered: Most people just think they’re British. As the owner of the Salsa Castle chain, Davis was good fun playing around with the alien family when they invited her over for dinner and into the latest of their grand schemes, which involved trying to convince her they were British via all of the most obvious British-isms. Now, in and of itself, this wasn’t really all that funny. It just involved all of the British jokes you’ve heard on a million other shows, expressed in slightly different ways (often via flashcards). But The Neighbors’ cast is its not so secret weapon, and in the scene where Davis and her son sat down to dinner with the alien family, the energy got wilder and wilder, thanks to all of the actors bouncing off of each other.


There’s probably a better version of this show that made a bit more out of Davis thinking the aliens were just fellow Britons like herself and then being sorely disappointed when she discovered they were just weirdoes. There’s also probably one that didn’t try to rope the Weavers into the middle of all of this, solely because at one time, this show was to be the future of ABC family sitcoms, so it needed a “normal” family to contrast with everybody else. (I have no idea if this was the case, but The Neighbors seems like it would be so much better if it were about the aliens, with the humans as an occasional, weird adjunct to whatever Templeman and Olagundoye were up to that week. Really, the series is sort of evolving in that direction already—the Weavers’ storyline was very much a B-story this week—but for as much as this show makes me laugh, it’s going to need to make the Weavers feel like something other than a network note about relatability before it’s going to become one of the best shows on TV. With this cast, there’s every possibility in the world to make that work. But I’m not holding my breath.

Stray observations:

  • I would absolutely go to a Salsa Castle if there were one in my neighborhood.
  • Every time I see the word Zabvronian spelled out, I cringe a little bit at that extra V in there. I don’t even know why I do that, but Debbie’s banner for Zabvronian New Year reminded me of this, and I thought I would tell all of you about it.
  • I did enjoy Dick Butkus not knowing how to say the line “Bond. James Bond.”
  • Last Man Standing watch: For some reason, I’ve kept up with this show after my second season article on the show’s weirdness. Tonight’s episode might have been the best Last Man Standing I’ve seen yet, refreshingly free from Tim Allen lecturing the audience on Danish driving safety from behind the wheel of a poorly-CGI’ed car (yes, this really happened). Molly Ephraim is the show’s secret weapon, and every time there’s a story based on the character of Mandy, the show tends to be better. I could have done without Ed going undercover, but it gave Hector Elizondo a chance to make fun of the competition, and that was cool.
  • Kenny couldn’t be here this evening, and I’ve been wanting to write about the show for a while. If we continue covering the series (which is going to rely a lot on readership going forward), then he will return at some point.