There are certain kinds of shows that invite automatic derision, none more so than the high-concept sitcom. From My Favorite Martian to My Mother the Car through Holmes and Yo-Yo and Work It to ABC’s The Neighbors, the intentional silliness of the premise is an automatic turn-off to a lot of people. The key word there, though, is “intentional”: You don’t make My Mother the Car thinking you’re creating a brilliant satire of man’s dependency on the automobile. And Bosom Buddies was a potentially awful idea (which Work It copped), but was redeemed by the budding talents of Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari, among others. Similarly if not as successfully, the knowing creators of The Neighbors clearly want their show to serve as something more than a series of sight-gags and verbal gaffes, this time from a bunch of aliens who’ve moved into a suburban enclave.
I’ll emphasize the positive first. The Neighbors has a good cast, in particular Simon Templeman as the fussily precise de facto leader of the aliens, and Jami Gertz, trying her all to muster a Lucille Ball, or at least a Julia Louis-Dreyfus as old Christine, as the human suburban wife/mom. And as her husband, Lenny Venito has a kind of frowsy charm — Venito has always struck me as possessing the carapace of a hardened nightclub comic, an approach I find admirable in an actor. In general, The Neighbors — the premise is that Gertz and Venito are the first humans to penetrate the aliens’ earthly neighborhood — wants to say something about tolerance and the universality of eccentricity.
It’s just that — now we get to the negative stuff — it doesn’t do it very well, or at least in any consistent, thought-through way. There’s no internal logic to the premise. (The aliens live in the ’burbs but fear cars and malls? No humans before Gertz and Venito have breached their community, not even a mailman or a cable TV installer?) (And if not the latter, where did they pick up all their human aliases from sports figures, like Templeman’s Larry Bird or his wife Jackie Joyner-Kersee, played by Toks Olagundoye?)
There’s a certain poignance to the fact that these aliens see themselves as stuck on Earth, having been waiting for a decade to receive a message to return to their home planet. And poignance is the flip-side of good comedy. But the first episode devolved into a lot of panicky squawking on the part of both humans and aliens, and the nice touches Templeman provides with his assiduously polite responses to any question or situation.
I’ll be surprised if The Neighbors fares well in the ratings, after a first week’s sampling by you curious watchers. But, hey, the show is, in general, better-acted than Two and a Half Men is these days, and I’d assert that it’s funnier than another freshman show, Guys With Kids. So, worst new show of the season? My friends, you haven’t seen the CW’s Beauty and the Beast yet…