This year, no new sitcom was met with as much disdain as ABC’s The Neighbors. The half-hour comedy is about a New Jersey family that moves into a gated community entirely populated by aliens. The premise, though definitely weird, isn’t problematic. How could it be when sitcoms like Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie are beloved and, more recently, we’ve seen just how funny a modern, high concept sitcom can be with FX’s dark, surreal comedy Wilfred? No, the real problem with The Neighbors is that it is all premise and never says anything important or even remotely compelling about real life, which all of the best fantasy and sci-fi shows do.
To me, 3rd Rock from the Sun is the gold standard when it comes to alien sitcoms. Sure, My Favorite Martian, Mork & Mindy, and ALF are all treasures and important parts of the proud alien sitcom tradition but 3rd Rock was able to take its implausible concept—four aliens visiting Earth to study the planet’s customs while trying to blend in with the human population—and present a meaningful and timeless mediation on the human experience. What’s more, this was achieved through broad humor (there was so much screaming on that show), which is pretty amazing.
Dick (Jon Lithgow), Sally (Kristen Johnston), Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and Harry (French Stewart) responded to the baffling aspects of life on Earth (dating, politics, babies, jury duty) with graceless candor but there was always something relatable about those reactions. The Solomons were mentally aliens but physiologically humans (they had human emotions, hormones, etc.) and as they adjusted to their new bodies, they ended up being almost more human than humans that they interacted with, or maybe human in its rawest form. They obsessed over TV, they had trouble navigating their romantic relationships, they were a family—their escapades may have been over-the-top but it wasn’t difficult to identify with the characters.
The aliens on The Neighbors, like the ones on 3rd Rock, take on human form (their real, slimy-green computer-generated bodies are revealed in the first episode). Instead of having low-key, clever names (like Tom, Dick, and Harry—get it?) they’re are all named after American sports figures—the leader of their community is Larry Bird (Simon Templeman), his wife is Jackie Joyner-Kersee (Toks Olagundoye), and their kids are Reggie Jackson (Tim Jo) and Dick Butkus (Ian Patrick). The name joke is a little funny when it’s introduced, but immediately goes stale after you’ve heard their full names repeated for a second time, and goes to full-on cloying from that point.
The culture clash that happens when the unsuspecting human Weaver family—Marty (Lenny Venito), Debbie (Jami Gertz), and their three kids—moves into the community is just as over-the-top as what happens when the Solomons come to Earth. But because creator Dan Fogleman is so concerned with establishing the Bird-Kersees’ alien-ness and apparently doesn’t want viewers to relate to them in any way, their behavior just seems maddeningly idiotic.
In a recent episode, Larry Bird goes to work with Marty and wears a construction helmet and work boots into Marty’s office, just for the sake of being weird and alien-y, I guess. Then, when he’s introduced to Marty’s boss who uses a mechanical wheelchair, he stares at the woman bug-eyed and is so confound by what he sees that he doesn’t speak or shake her hand. The Solomons seemed naïve, whereas these aliens just seem stupid. So I suppose we have to look to the human characters to find anything deeper than “aliens don’t understand things because they’re from space.” But the Weavers issues are boring and vague (one episode is just about going back-to-school shopping) and they all have generic personalities (Marty is a working dad who can’t understand what his wife wants or needs emotionally, Debbie is a stressed out mom, their teenage daughter is rude and angsty, the two younger kids argue with each other because that’s what siblings do).
The Neighbors has its moments, I won’t deny that. Really all of the actors are doing rather well with what they’ve been given—Gertz is especially good as the sometimes crazed Debbie. But Fogleman is trying (I think) to use the contrast between the aliens and humans to comment on the American family and unfortunately just ends up reinforcing tired sitcom clichés.