The Neighbors is one of the most reviled new series of the 2012-13 TV season. The AV Club called it “incredibly stale,” the New York Times likened it to “3rd Rock From the Sun without the wit or the understatement,” and the Hollywood Reporter said it was “one of the least funny things to air on television since the last Hitler documentary on History.” That’s a bit harsh—this season alone I’d rank Guys With Kids and the execrable Partners far below The Neighbors—but the pilot really was terrible. Establishing the premise—the Weaver family move from New York into a gated New Jersey community and discover that everyone else on the block is an alien from Zabvronia—left little room for jokes (or at least not any funny ones).
But the four episodes that have followed, including tonight’s Halloween special, have been full of goofy silliness that give the show’s stars—mostly journeymen character actors—a chance to show off their considerable comic chops. The brave Zabvronians—led by Larry Bird (Simon Templeman), his wife Jackie Joyner-Kersee (Toks Olagundoye), and their children Dick Butkus (Ian Patrick) and Reggie Jackson (Tim Jo)—have been in America for 10 years, but in their isolated state, they’ve developed a few misunderstandings. (And so far they have not explained why all the Zabvronians have the names of famous athletes.) Trick-or-treating children appear to them like ravaging invaders, and they assume The Real Housewives of New Jersey is an excellent guide to proper behavior. Now the Weavers and their “loin fruit” are around to clue them in to human ways—and maybe have their own horizons expanded a little, too.
No, there’s nothing new here. The Neighbors revisits “stranger in a strange land” territory that was explored long ago in shows like Bewitched, The Addams Family, Mork & Mindy, and 3rd Rock From the Sun. But the daffy details—like those sports-star names and the golf togs the Zabvronians all wear—and the actors’ knack for expressing exasperated confusion have set me giggling every episode. (By the way, if you’re the kind of person who will never laugh at a line like “I want to express my love of Dick,” The Neighbors is not for you.)
Granted, I’m part of a demographic that might be particularly susceptible to The Neighbors’ charms. As an immigrant to the United States, I can relate to the Zabvronians’ confusion. The rules and customs of our home planets, er, countries, don’t always apply here, whether they involve gender roles, respect for our elders, ideas about fashion, or the proper attitude regarding one’s ambitions. Nearly 40 million of the 309 million residents of the United States are foreign-born. And those critics who were surprised when ABC sent The Neighbors into production need to remember that Paul Lee, the British-born president of the ABC Entertainment Group, is one of them.