Don’t Believe the Critics: The Neighbors Is Actually Pretty Good

Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 24 2012 6:35 PM

Is The Neighbors Really TV’s Worst New Show?

the neighbors
Simon Templeman, Max Charles, Isabella Cramp,Jami Gertz, and Clara Mametin The Neighbors

Karen Neal/American Broadcasting Companies, Inc./IMDB.com

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.

Advertisement

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.

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?
Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 2 2014 8:07 AM The Dark Side of Techtopia
  Life
Dear Prudence
Oct. 2 2014 6:00 AM Can’t Stomach It I was shamed for getting gastric bypass surgery. Should I keep the procedure a secret?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 2 2014 7:30 AM What Put the Man in the Moon in the Moon?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?