Former home of The Jetsons and Mork & Mindy, ABC debuted their latest entry into the genre of science-fiction comedy, The Neighbors, alongside its established series Modern Family and The Middle last night. The premise is that a small colony of aliens from the planet Zabvron landed on Earth ten years ago to await further instructions from home. Disguising themselves as humans, the Zabvronians moved en masse into a newly built gated community and haven't encountered any human beings until the Weavers arrive.
Just reading that description, I had absolutely no interest in this show. In fact, I had negative interest. No way would I watch that crap. So with all that said, The Neighbors surprised the hell out of me as it was actually an imaginative and witty take on the sci-fi sitcom. For the most part, the writing and the dialogue is very clever. For starters, the extraterrestrials are all named after famous athletes because they represent the finest physical specimens in the world, so the family consisting of Larry Bird and Jackie Joyner-Kersee have an Asian son named Reggie Jackson and a very pale younger son named Dick Butkus. There are some very funny lines, such as when Jackie is discussing her marriage with her new human neighbor, Debbie Weaver, and sheds some light on Zabvronian biology: "It's as if he thinks he can make every decision for this family simply because he ruined his body carrying our two children." Speaking in cultured English accents, Larry explains matter-of-factly that it was the only way to class up our guttural language.
Without solid casting, a show with this concept could quickly crash and burn. Fortunately, the producers have done an excellent job of filling the main roles with the ideal actors for the parts. Simon Templeman is superbly strange as Larry Bird, and no offense to the kid, but Ian Patrick as little Dick Butkus looks like an alien even in human form. In the role of Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Toks Olagundoyem is appropriately robotic while also quite easy on the eyes. On the human side, Lenny Venito grounds the show with all the real-world credibility he has gained from being a character actor in series like The Sopranos, NYPD Blue, and The Knights Of Prosperity. It doesn't hurt that he has good timing and chemistry with his on-screen wife, played by Jami Gertz. Their back-and-forth relationship is beyond a cliche, but they portray it with enthusiasm and freshness.
Evoking a tone reminiscent of Third Rock From The Sun or Saturday Night Live's Coneheads, The Neighbors felt unique and different amidst the current television landscape. However, the low point of this pilot episode was reached when tired old Sitcom Scenario #37—involving the (alien) wife kicking the (alien) husband out of the house—reared its ugly and predictable head. Although the situation was quickly resolved, it felt like a B-plot from a future episode when the human and alien families had learned to trust each other. As it was, the Weavers were far too quick to trust their new neighbors and get involved in their personal business, presumably mere hours after seeing their true alien forms.
I thought that was a fairly unbelievable transition, unless a future episode reveals that the Zabvronians zapped them in their sleep with some sort of trust laser. Hopefully, the recycled sitcom plot and sappy ending offered in the premiere was only a symptom of its status as a pilot. Once we get into subsequent episodes, I'm hoping that the writers and producers aren't afraid to embrace the absurdity of the concept rather than just plugging these unusual characters into standard TV comedy situations. For the amount of imagination and thought that went into designing the alien race and their homes on Earth, it would be a shame to let it go to waste. In the pantheon of sci-fi television comedies between ALF and Small Wonder, The Neighbors could turn out to be something special depending on the course charted by the next couple of episodes.
FINAL GRADE: B