matt zoller seitz

Seitz on The Neighbors: What Can I Say? It Made Me Laugh

Photo: Karen Neal/ABC

Before I recommend The Neighbors (ABC, Wednesdays, 9:30) — a comedy that shoplifts elements from 3rd Rock From the Sun, Coneheads, and other aliens-in-the-suburbs tales and tries to put fresh spins on them — two caveats are in order. Caveat one: The pilot for ABC’s extraterrestrial silly-fest feels half-baked, and parts of it just sort of lie there, but this shouldn’t be a deal breaker. Pilots are always a tad awkward, even good ones, and The Neighbors pilot has the added burden of introducing the year’s weirdest new network sitcom. It’s less a story than a comedy playpen, a place for slapstick, bad puns, and actors’ riffs. Caveat two: Humor is subjective, and silly/stupid is comedy’s cul-de-sac, a place where clowns go to die. You might love Dumb and Dumber but find Mack Sennett boring, or adore the Stooges but be unmoved by Skin Deep. Different strokes, etc.

That said, The Neighbors made me laugh. A lot. I can’t explain why, exactly — see “subjectivity,” above — but its more inspired moments hit the same comedic sweet spot that make me chortle at Spike Jones’s version of “The William Tell Overture,” Peter Boyle’s scenes in Honeymoon in Vegas, and the moment in The SpongeBob Squarepants Movie when the hero declares, “You don’t need a license to drive a sandwich.”

Lenny Venito plays Marty Weaver, the patriarch of a Manhattan family who unilaterally decides to move his wife Debbie (Jamie Gertz) and kids, Amber, Max, and Abby (Max Weaver, Clara Mamet, Isabella Cramp) to Hidden Hills, New Jersey, a gated community that just listed an available house for the first time in decades. Unfortunately, said home was vacated by extraterrestrials from the planet Zabvron. They were part of a colony that bought out the subdivision as part of some unexplained mission. A couple dozen Zabvronians were dispatched to earth and told to settle and await further instructions, but their leader (Simon Templeman) forgot to bring a crucial device that would have permitted two-way communication with their home planet. So now they’re all stranded, trying to pose as typical suburbanites — typical suburbanites that zoom around in golf carts, cry “Woop woop woooo!” when they’re happy, wash their flying saucers in driveways, spontaneously materialize en masse in regimented formation, transform into gangly amphibious creatures with green scaly skin and similarly colored slime blood, and have named themselves for legendary Earth athletes.

“We bring you pie, as is your custom as a gift of welcome,” says Templeman’s character, Larry Bird, standing outside the newcomers’ front door with two dozen fellow Zabvronians. “We receive nourishment through our eyes and minds rather than through our mouths,” says Bird’s wife Jackie Joyner-Kersee (Toks Olagundoye), explaining why they’re reading at a welcome dinner while their guests eat.

Like all the other Zabvronians, the main couple speaks in British accents, in order to “class up your guttural language.” They have two children, Dick Butkus and Reggie Jackson. Larry and Jackie’s marriage is troubled because Larry is too insecure and dictatorial. “It’s as if he thinks he can make every decision for this family simply because he ruined his body carrying our two children,” Jackie explains. The pilot draws parallels between their union and the Weavers’, which is a bit unsteady thanks to Marty’s move-to-the-suburbs gambit. (Debbie wanted him to be more spontaneous, but in retrospect she’d rather he’d brought her flowers for no reason.)  

Can a show this aggressively silly survive more than a  couple weeks? I hope so. The Neighbors hasn’t hit its groove yet, but in time it might. The pilot has more than a few swing-for-the-fences moments, such as Jackie tossing plates through an open kitchen window instead of washing them, and a lyrical, inexplicably touching slow-motion montage scored to “We’ll Meet Again.” The weirder the show gets, the more remarkable it will seem. To misquote Groucho Marx, The Neighbors has the imagination of a 4-year-old boy, and I’ll bet he was glad to get rid of it.

TV Review: The Neighbors