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Neighbors from Hell

Series Premiere
Cast: Molly Shannon, Will Sasso, Patton Oswalt
Regular airtime: Mondays, 10pm ET

(TBS; US: 7 Jun 2010)

Following in the well-worn footsteps of countless fish-out-of-water sitcom families, TBS’ animated comedy, Neighbors from Hell, strains to find the humor in the concept and falls short. In this iteration, the outliers are the Hellmans, demons from hell forced to live in a typical American suburb.


Patriarch Balthazor (voiced by Will Sasso) is a mid-level functionary in hell, who tortures souls for a living, preferably by forcing them to listen to Britney Spears on an iPod. That’s the first warning sign that the jokes here are a bit stale.


Balthazor and his family are sent to live among the humans so that he can sabotage a drill that might reach the underworld at the center of the Earth. Why a big drill would mean the destruction of hell isn’t really clear. More obvious and clichéd is the casting of a multinational conglomerate, Petromundo, as an institution more evil than hell, and led by a CEO, Don Killbride (Kurtwood Smith), who has fewer scruples than the devil himself.


Speaking of the devil, Satan (an underutilized Steve Coogan) chooses Balthazor for this mission because he watches a lot of ‘80s sitcoms like Growing Pains and Alf. A demon from hell trying to pass as human based solely on what he has learned from those shows could be very funny, but it is just another missed opportunity here. Though the classic sitcoms get name-checked, Balthazor offers no sign that he’s ever seen them or misappropriated their outdated lessons.


Most of the show’s jokes, however, are awkwardly stitched together from the scraps of well-known predecessors. That doesn’t mean it has actually learned from them. So, though the family members struggle to mimic the clans from The Simpsons and Family Guy, none has much of a personality, a primary ingredient in both those shows. Balthazar’s wife, Tina (Molly Shannon), is vaguely angry. The requisite son and daughter, Mandy (Tracey Fairaway) and Josh (David Soren), are ciphers. Talking devil dog Pazuzu (Patton Oswalt) and Uncle Vlaartark (Kyle McCulloch) leave slightly stronger initial impressions, but mainly each has an accent of indeterminate origin.


In addition to the family, we meet a couple of their neighbors. An alcoholic, pill-popping woman actually comes across as kind of sad, and Marjoe (Dina Waters) is so annoying that she becomes tiresome within moments of meeting her. The most original and funny joke in the pilot is a poodle so distraught at being owned by Marjoe that it keeps trying unsuccessfully to kill itself. The literally hangdog look and silly canine suicide attempts offer a glimpse of what the show could be. That dog has more personality than all other characters.


Neighbors from Hell‘s underwritten figures are credited to writer Pam Brady, who was a writer and producer on South Park, a show that understands the intersection of funny and edgy better than any other. Nowhere is its contrast to South Park starker than in the portrayal of Satan. South Park put him in a dysfunctional relationship with Saddam Hussein that was both hilarious and disturbing. Neighbors from Hell wants to walk on that same knife’s edge, but never comes close. Here Satan likes to administer electric shocks as punch-lines.


By the end of the first episode, Balthazor has decided not to destroy the drill yet, because he likes the guy in charge of the project. Worse, he gives a speech about how important it is for the family to work together. The show really wants us to know that these demons have more humanity than the people they have to live with. But where’s the fun in that? Let them be demons.

Rating:

Michael Landweber is the author of the novel, We. His short stories have appeared in a variety of places, including Gargoyle, Fourteen Hills, Fugue, American Literary Review, Barrelhouse and Ardor. He is an Associate Editor at the Potomac Review. Landweber has also worked at The Japan Times and the Associated Press. He lives in Washington, DC with his wife and two children. He can be contacted through his website at mikelandweber.com.


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