Thursday, September 27, 2012

Pilot Review: The Neighbors

The Neighbors (Wednesdays at 8:30 on ABC)

Okay, this might come as a shock based on how terrible the previews were and how unbelievably off-putting the official ABC series description is, but The Neighbors isn't totally awful. I know, I'm ashamed of myself for saying that, but it's true. The Neighbors isn't the worst show of the year; it's not even the worst sitcom of the year. Yes, it's truly stupid and silly and ridiculous and did I mention stupid? But it's not terrible... actually, it's kind of enjoyable on some level.

Marty (Lenny Venito, The Sopranos) has decided to relocate his family from the city to the suburbs in an exclusive gated community... without consulting his wife, Debbie (Jami Gertz, Still Standing), first. There's a rift immediately, but it's soon forgotten when the family meets their new neighbors. They are all named after famous athletes, stand in pyramid formation at all times, and do not eat food ("We receive nourishment through our eyes and mind rather than through our mouths"). First on the scene is leader Larry Bird (Simon Templeman, Charmed) and his wife Jackie Joyner-Kersee (Toks Olagundoye). They invite the Weaver family over for dinner, where their son Dick Butkus (Ian Patrick), "exposes" himself to the Weaver children, revealing the community as a group of aliens sent to Earth to determine if its climate is livable. That was ten years ago, and the device with which they communicate with their home planet is in need of recharging. Unfortunately the only way to do so is to sacrifice the youngest member of the community, which would be Dick Butkus.

On no level would I ever consider The Neighbors a smart comedy. It's absolutely stupid, but that's kind of why it's enjoyable, to a point. It's totally harmless. It doesn't want to engage too much of your mind, it doesn't want to offend any sensibilities, and it doesn't want to do anything but make you laugh at how dumb it is. And it succeeds in that department, because it's really dumb. But they got me sometimes. I couldn't help but laugh at the alien family comprised of a white father, black mother, Asian child and redheaded child. I did giggle at the names and some of the silly repartee, like their explanation for adopting British accents. The quirks of their alien nature are less amusing, from crying green goo out of their ears to sleeping in pods, but there's something really human at the bottom of it all.

I wouldn't go so far as to consider The Neighbors satire; I don't think it's smart enough for that. But it does have something to say about how we relate to people. No matter how seemingly enormous the difference between people (race, sexuality, religion, culture, etc.), we have a lot in common. Marty relates to Larry Bird (I'm sorry, I just giggled typing that, it's just so ridiculous) and his struggle to maintain order in his family; Jackie Joyner-Kersee (and again!) and Debbie can relate to trying to claim their voice in marriages where their partners do not always respect them. The Neighbors goes to extreme, silly lengths to show that, but Disney creator/writer/director Dan Fogelman (Tangled, Cars) has experience balancing adult and youngster humor. It's not always successful, sometimes coming across as a live-action Saturday morning cartoon, but it's an admirable effort considering how childish the whole concept is.

Despite all that, the episode itself isn't exactly good. It's a poor man's less-intelligent 3rd Rock from the Sun, more like My Favorite Martian, and it isn't a very attractive half-hour. The aliens in their native appearance look sort-of claymated, and the effects are pretty cheesy. And the score is so awful, loud and obnoxious that it made me dread any scene changes. The performances are expectedly broad, though the two human adults fare best. Jami Gertz is playing the same character she played on Standing Still, and Lenny Venito is playing a stereotypical Jersey Italian. But they're both actually funny, and they don't have the burden of doing extremely stupid alien things the way the others do.

I'm not saying that I recommend The Neighbors. It's definitely stupid, but it's not as heinous as I had anticipated. It's a decent show to watch as a family, especially if your kids are young since there's not a single offensive thing happening and the only adult joke will totally escape them ("I fear our little Dick has exposed himself again"). But it's not good.... it's also not the worst sitcom you could be watching on Wednesday nights.

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