September 20, 2013

THE SKED Season Premiere Review: “The Neighbors”


THE NEIGHBORS:  Friday 8:30PM on ABC

THE NEIGHBORS was last season’s reminder that a pilot isn’t the final word on a series.  In fact, neither are the first several episodes.  It took a while for Dan Fogelman’s show to demonstrate that it was more than its inane premise and slapstick gags about aliens living in New Jersey suburbia and prove itself sneaky-smart and unexpectedly sly.  By then, the ratings were just this side of dismal, with numbers that mostly ranged from 1.7-ish (when its lead-in The Middle aired a new episode) to the wrong side of 1.5 (when The Middle was a rerun).  But critics–including this one–started taking notice that there was something original and funny going on where no one was looking, and ABC didn’t quite kill the show.

You might call the network’s move of The Neighbors to the tender mercies of a Friday 8:30PM slot (with the utterly incompatible Last Man Standing as lead-in) a pity move, and the show would agree with you.  In fact, it said as much in tonight’s Season 2 premiere, in a sidelong joke about poor Smash not even getting that.  But all a show can do is put its merits on display, and the premiere half-hour, written by Co-Executive Producer Kristin Newman and directed by Chris Koch, did that.

The episode picks up 2 months after last season’s finale, and deals with the discovery by Debbie and Marty Weaver (Jami Gertz and Lenny Venito), and the Zabvronians who go by the names Larry Bird (Simon Templeman) and Jackie Joyner-Kersee (Toks Olagundoye) that their respective children Amber (Clara Mamet) and Reggie Jackson (Tim Jo) have, against all planetary and interplanetary logic, begun a romance.  Both sets of parents are mortified, and a joint family meeting is called in the conference room of the previously-unseen complex under the aliens’ house (“We’re supposed to have the same floor plan!” Marty complains).  The original plan is to break the couple up–it’s noted that were they to have children, they might resemble lizards or orchids–but with the help of cyber-moderator Jerry Springer and some sentimental logic from young Abby Weaver (Isabella Cramp), young love is allowed to have its head–with the inconvenient complication that Larry Bird has already called for Reggie’s official soulmate-cum-stalker to be beamed down from Zabvron (just how many spaceships have to land in New Jersey before anyone pays attention? Debbie reasonably wonders).

The Neighbors has become an increasingly expert mix of silly and very sharp, with gags in the premiere that play off the inability of men to comprehend the appeal of Terms of Endearment and Catherine Zeta-Jones’s slink past laser beams in Entrapment, along with officious family conference receptionist (he prefers “office manager”) Dick Butkus (Ian Patrick) and one of the more clever Diet Dr. Pepper product placements you’ll find in primetime.  The actors are gleefully good together, and this storyline gives particular prominence to Mamet and Jo, who have a strangely charming rapport.  (As Dick Butkus sagely notes, the other cliffhanger from last season’s finale, in which the Zabvronians will need to earn money for the first time because by remaining on Earth, they’ve been cut off from home-planet funding, is something we’ll be hearing about all year.)  There’s even a helpful reminder near the episode’s end that Shark Tank will be starting in 4 minutes.

The Neighbors has evolved into one of ABC’s freshest comedies, with just about everything it needs except much of an audience.  Less will be required of it on Fridays, but it remains to be seen whether there’s much overlap between Tim Allen’s audience and those who can appreciate the sundry rules and by-laws of Zabvronian conferences (worth a freeze-frame, they include “”Keep exposition to a minimum,” “No flashbacks!” and “There is no spoon”).  The show has, at the very least, earned its pity move.

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."