'The Neighbors': Aliens with Lawns and Fences

Maybe the entire series is a commentary on wealth inequality in the US. The aliens are clearly the one percent: they own all the houses and don't have jobs.

The Neighbors

Airtime: Wednesdays, 8:30pm ET
Cast: Jami Gertz, Lennie Venito, Simon Templeman, Toks Olagundoye, Clara Mamet, Reggie Jackson
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: ABC
Creator: Dan Fogelman
Air date: 2012-09-26

As The Neighbors begins, the Weaver family is moving out of the city to a spacious new home in a gated community in the New Jersey suburbs. Already, the gruff but loveable schlub of a husband, Marty (Lenny Venito), along with his attractive wife (Jami Gertz), and three innocuous kids, look too familiar, as if they've been lifted from All About Jim. Marty's family is happy that has finally made a good decision. And then they meet the neighbors, who all happen to be aliens.

Using aliens as the Other is a common TV device. In drama, seemingly benevolent aliens almost always want to eat us. Sitcoms tend to be less apocalyptic. Here, aliens come to earth to observe, and in so doing, shed light on our foibles through their own quirky but charming behaviors. A UFO-load of talented actors have taken on the fish-out-of-water role with great success -- Ray Walston in My Favorite Martian, Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters in Mork & Mindy, John Lithgow and Joseph Gordon-Leavitt in Third Rock from the Sun. The twist in The Neighbors is that the humans are the Others, trying to adjust to living with the aliens.

On its surface, this is a similar premise to another ABC sitcom, Suburgatory, except in that show, the aliens are human suburbanites who belong to the country club and have hedge fund money. The fun of that show is watching the fast-talking NYC girl poking holes in their façade while actually starting to become part of the community. The aliens hiding out on Earth in the The Neighbors are Zabvronians, who share with their new human friends a penchant for preppy clothing, but are otherwise so bizarre that it seems hard to believe that the Weavers will ever be able to embrace them.

The aliens’ behavior has no internal logic save for filling up the half hour with disconnected gags. They have names like Mary Lou Retton (Katherine Tokarz), Jackie Joyner-Kersee (Toks Olagundoye), and Reggie Jackson (Tim Jo). One alien has a pet llama: why, we don’t know. Another stands in his front yard squirting water straight up from the hose, staring at it like it is a miracle. If he doesn't understand his hose, how does his lawn look so perfect? Maybe that's why the other guy has the llama, to eat everyone's grass.

These extraneous touches (and many others) would be less problematic if the aliens had just arrived on Earth. But they’ve been here for 10 years, waiting for instructions from the home planet. Yet they are so inept at deception that within a day of introducing themselves to the Weavers, they've exposed themselves as aliens. How have they not been discovered earlier? It may be a gated community, but they still have to interact with people occasionally, like when they go to the pet store for llama chow. Even if the kids are all home-schooled and the aliens never leave the compound, there must be outside contact. Wouldn’t the mailman have noticed that everyone is named after celebrity athletes?

This is what happens during the pilot -- you find yourself thinking about extraneous things while watching it. We've seen all the jokes about aliens’ weird behavior before. They don’t eat like us. Check. They take things literally. Check. They have glowing objects with funny names. Check and check. Williams and Lithgow (and even ALF) did it first and better. So instead of laughing at aliens who cry green goo out of their ears, you find yourself considering how to make sense of the series' many incongruities, its clichés and its inanities.

For instance, I began to wonder whether the entire series might be a slyer-than-it-looks commentary on wealth inequality in the US. The aliens are clearly the one percent. They bought every house in this gated community with cash and none appears to have a job They speak with haughty-sounding accents and they're clueless about how anyone else lives. The Weavers are a working class family. They made a bad bet on a house they couldn't afford. Now they're stuck and making the best of it.

Or maybe the whole thing is a parable about illegal immigration. After all, Chris Christie is one of those governors who is not a fan of crossing the border. Can the Weavers help their immigrant neighbors -- who are, after all, just trying to make a better life for themselves in New Jersey -- avoid getting deported?

Unfortunately, the pilot doesn't suggest that there is anything more interesting at work here than a weak attempt to wring laughs out of aliens who are buffoons. By the end of the pilot, Marty and Larry Bird (Simon Templeman) are hanging out, complaining about their wives and kids. In the end, the Zabvronians appear to be most directly descended from the Coneheads, perfect for a three-minute Saturday Night Live skit and boring in anything longer.

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