The Light from the TV Shows: It’s Time to Meet “The Neighbors”

Unto each generation, there must come at least one sitcom about aliens coming to Earth and trying to learn the ins and outs of humanity. It’s a trend which began in the 1960s with “My Favorite Martian,” and it has continued through the ‘70s (“Mork and Mindy”), ‘80s (“ALF”), ‘90s (“3rd Rock from the Sun”), and even the ‘00s (“My Hero”), and rather than leave us sitting on the edge of our seat for the better part of the decade, ABC has jumped into the fray early and provided us with the requisite entry for the ‘10s: “The Neighbors,” which premieres tonight at 9:30 PM.

Here’s the premise, straight from the ABC press release:

Marty Weaver (Lenny Venito) just wants the best for his wife, Debbie (Jami Gertz), and their three kids. That’s why he’s moving them to Hidden Hills, New Jersey, a gated community complete with its own golf course. Marty is certain that their new home will be a dream come true. And then, they meet the neighbors.

The residents of Hidden Hills are a little… different. The Weavers have barely unpacked when 20 of their new neighbors show up in the driveway, standing in a triangle formation, each holding an identical cherry pie. Larry Bird (Simon Templeman) introduces himself as the “leader” of the community. Then he presents his wife, Jackie Joyner-Kersee (Toks Olagundoye), and their two sons (yes, they’re named after famous athletes – Dick Butkus and Reggie Jackson). As Debbie and Marty frantically try to make sense of the weird neighbors – European? A cult? Amish athletes? – they discover that the entire Hidden Hills community is comprised of aliens from the planet Zabvron. ‘Turns out the Zabvronians have been holed up in Hidden Hills for the past 10 years, awaiting instructions from back home, and the Weavers are the first humans who have ever lived amongst them.

At first the Weavers are ready to cut and run. But the aliens seem harmless enough. And there is a lot of closet space… So they decide to stay and help their new neighbors adapt to life on this confusing planet we call home. But as the Weavers and the aliens face the struggles of everyday life together, they discover that some things – the ups and downs of marriage, the desire to be a good parent and raise a happy family – are universal, intergalactic even. And the Weavers realize they’ve found an ally in the family next door… even if they do cry out of their ears.

When people have asked me to cite my favorite new shows of the season, I won’t pretend that “The Neighbors” has been at the top of my list, but I have found that I can rarely finish such a conversation without at least bringing it up. Not because I like it, although I do, but because my seven-year-old daughter absolutely freaking loves it…like, to the point where she has watched my advance DVD of the pilot three times now, almost lost her mind when I told her that ABC had provided me with an online screener of the second episode, and demanded that I add it to the TiVo queue immediately.

I realize that this reaction isn’t necessarily what your average adult might view as a ringing endorsement, but consider how much you enjoyed some of the shows I cited in the opening paragraph during your own youth, then consider that “The Neighbors” has been placed in the midst of ABC’s Wednesday lineup of family comedies. On the surface, it might seem like the night’s weak link (and, indeed, it may yet prove to be), but if it doesn’t do bang-up ratings right out of the box, I hope the network at least gives it a trial week in the 8 PM timeslot, because otherwise, based on my daughter’s reaction, a lot of the potential audience for the series is going to be in bed by the time it comes on.

Did I think “The Neighbors” was as funny as my daughter did? No, I did not. But as someone who’s still in possession of a (pre-stamped) autographed photo of Robin Williams and Pam Dawber that I received after sending a fan letter to “Mork and Mindy,” I also admit to having a very soft spot for aliens-on-earth comedies, so I did laugh. It certainly doesn’t hurt that both Venito and Gertz both have top-notch comedic timing, of course, and the fact that Templeman and Olagundove both have charming British accents means that everything that comes out of their mouths is sounds so charming that it’s automatically perceived by our American brains as being 25% funnier than it probably really is. Inevitably, the series will spend a fair amount of time on cultural misunderstandings, which is only inevitable with this premise, but what I liked most is that the tone of the show occasionally seems to be a bit darker than its predecessors in the genre, most notably during a moment in the pilot where – although you know it’s never going to happen – it looks as though one of the alien children is about to meet his alien maker for the good of his people. There’s also a suggestion during the second episode that there’s potential for a battle for leadership amongst the Zabrvonians, something which leaves me hopeful that we’ll soon be seeing a schism amongst the aliens, with some of them less interested in learning about Earth culture and more concerned about taking over the planet.

What I wouldn’t give for “The Neighbors” to turn into some semblance of a live-action “Invader Zim.” Man, that’d be sweet…