September 26, 2012



THE NEIGHBORS:  Wednesday 8:30PM ABCChange The Channel

It could have been worse.  Initially, ABC slotted THE NEIGHBORS, which is just a New Normal away from being the worst new sitcom of the fall, in the network’s most deluxe piece of real estate, following Modern Family on Wednesday nights.  It will debut there tonight, but that’s a one-time-only waste before it moves to its regular (for as long as it lasts) 8:30PM slot next week.

The Neighbors is–shockingly–written by Dan Fogelman, who wrote the wonderful Crazy, Stupid, Love, a high-concept comedy with a big Act 3 reveal whose humor nevertheless managed to feel natural and real throughout.  Before that, though, he was credited for the scripts of Cars, Fred Claus, Bolt and Tangled, and Neighbors is Fogelman in his far more cartoonish mode.  The concept is a simple reverse on 3d Rock From The Sun, or if you prefer, a revamp of The Coneheads:  this time, the setting is a suburban New Jersey housing development completely inhabited by aliens from another planet who are waiting for their orders, and our protagonist Weaver family–dad Marty (Lenny Venito), mom Debbie (Jami Gertz), teen Amber (Clara Mamet) and kids Max and Abby (Max Charles and Isabella Cramp)–are the only humans.

All the very broad gags–and Neighbors doesn’t have anything but very broad gags–come from the silliness of the aliens’ behavior.  They all wear identical sportswear and have taken the names of famous Earth athletes:  the show’s leading alien family is composed of Larry Bird (Simon Templeman), his wife Jackie Joyner-Kersee (Toks Olagundoye), teen son Reggie Jackson (Tim Jo) and younger boy Dick Butkus (Ian Patrick).  They cry green slime from their ears, they read books and newspapers to take in nourishment instead of eating, they sleep in pods, the men have periods and bear the children, they “toast” by banging their hands together and yowling, and–are you laughing yet?  Because these are the jokes. Sometimes the aliens seem to be aware of how strange they are to humans, sometimes they seem completely oblivious.  Certainly that last word describes the show itself.

Of course, there’s dumb sentimentality to go along with the dumb humor, and so in the pilot, the humans realize that aliens care about their children too (although that’s a limited avenue for development, since the Bird-Joyner-Kersees are, we’re told, the only aliens with kids), while Debbie teaches Jackie something about being respected by her husband, and Marty shares annoying-wife stories with Larry.

There’s certainly a way to tell stories like this that are also sneakily smart and sophisticated–that was true of 3d Rock some of the time, and in a slightly different genre, it’s been the sweet spot of Joss Whedon’s entire career.  It’s also the hallmark of much contemporary animation, from Futurama to The Incredibles.  But The Neighbors doesn’t want to be those shows, it doesn’t even want to be ALF.  It aspires to nothing more than being an updated My Favorite Martian, and that’s setting the creative bar awfully low.

Although The Neighbors is single camera, its tone and timing (the pilot was directed by Chris Koch) seem to cry out for multi-camera sets and a laugh track to respond on cue.  With this kind of material, the actors can’t do much more than mug for the camera and muddle through, as the script lurches from gag to gag.

With Modern Family as its lead-in, The Neighbors will certainly get a sampling tonight.  And in its regular slot, it airs against reality shows on CBS and FOX, a superhero hour on CW, and only one other sitcom:  the better-but-not-all-that-much Guys With Kids on NBC.  Eventually, though, viewers will realize that one of those (or whatever’s on their DVRs) is a better use of their time. The luckiest show on ABC:  Nashville, which just dodged having this bilge as its lead-in.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."