March 29, 2013



I’m not sure when THE NEIGHBORS started winning me over.  I dismissed the pilot as an overbroad, gimmicky, mostly witless rehash of 3d Rock From the Sun, but as quickly as an October episode where Zabvronian alien Jackie Joyner-Kersee (Toks Olagundoye), who usually speaks with a British accent that would put her in good stead at Hogwarts, thought that having a “ladies night” with human neighbor Debbie Weaver (Jami Gertz) meant behaving (with perfect accuracy) like a Real Housewife of New Jersey, it started to seem as though there might be more to the show after all.  A dollop of heart was added with a budding, halting romance between teens Amber Weaver (Clara Mamet) and Reggie Jackson (Tim Jo), her reflexive sarcasm undercut by his awkward earnestness.  By Thanksgiving, an episode that brought the aliens together with Marty’s racist parents for the holidays, The Neighbors was on something of a roll.  Then a story about the aliens having to learn the concept of human death, in the form of a local gardener’s passing, threatened to become downright insightful.  By season’s end, a musical episode (songs by Alan Menken) that parodied both Broadway and the allure of the big city was far more clever than anything Smash has accomplished in its two seasons on the air.

Over the course of its first (and perhaps only) season, The Neighbors has become a surprisingly deft mix of sight gags and sophistication, satire, sentiment and some knowingly meta humor.  (In the season finale, when faced with the prospect of leaving Earth, Larry Bird protests that he needs at least “six or seven seasons–umm, years” here, to which Debbie notes that even four would be fine.)  In a way, this shouldn’t come as a shock, since the show was created by Dan Fogelman, who beautifully balanced comedy (albeit of a more earth-bound kind) and romance as screenwriter of Crazy, Stupid, Love.  Although it seemed in the pilot like he’d lost his touch, it turned out he just needed a little more time to find it.

The season finale, written by Co-Executive Producer Kirker Butler and directed by Chris Koch, wasn’t the show at its best because it felt the need to jack up the sci-fi content for a big finish.  So we met Larry Bird’s alien father the Supreme Commander (George Takei), who orders all the extraterrestrials who inhabit the New Jersey suburban housing development to return to Zabvron (charmingly, before he appears in person, he communicates through messages imprinted on toast), and a cliffhanger warned of some danger to Earth.  If The Neighbors returns for a second season, hopefully this plotline will be dispensed with quickly, because the show is far stronger when it keeps its eyes on Earth rather than on intergalactic intrigue.  The finale’s best sequence was in Atlantic City, where Jackie yearned for an Earth-style wedding–on Zabvron, a married couple’s names are merely entered into a Book of Sorrows–and Debbie was game for Jackie’s interpretation of “maid of honor,” which required her to be in a swiped hotel housekeeping uniform during the ceremony, pushing a cleaning cart.

That gag is indicative of one of the keys to the show’s increasing charm:  rather than play on the Weaver’s horror and distrust of their alien neighbors, and emphasizing the strange bodily functions of the extraterrestrials as early episodes did, the better joke turned out to be the earthlings’ cheerful tolerance of their neighbors’ idiosyncracies.  As the show itself noted more than once, there’s nothing new about sitcom neighbors who fumble toward understanding and friendship, and sci-fi conventions, when used well, just heighten the humor.  The other tremendous strength of the show is the cast:  Templeman and Olagundoye are precise and inventive comedians who never let their characters fall in the many potential pits that surround them, while Lenny Venito and Gertz provide grounding as the Weavers.  Jo and Mamet are both appealingly strange in their different ways as the teen couple, and the show’s extreme weirdness factor is more than covered by Ian Patrick as young alien Dick Butkis.  (In one recent episode, he decided to become a talk-show sidekick, and moderated family conversations like Ed McMahon.)

The Neighbors is squarely on ABC’s bubble, with mid-1 ratings that have consistently trailed the show’s lead-in from The Middle but have also been very steady–still, it’s hard to argue that the numbers have shown much prospect for growth.  Its survival will depend on how many new sitcoms the network wants to launch next season, and how promising its pilots are.  For what it’s worth, the show has steadily improved and honed its distinctive voice, and it’s earned a chance to remain on Earth one more season–um, year.



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."