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Neighbors from Hell - "Pilot"

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If we're talking about underrated sitcoms of the last decade, I think we have to talk about The Loop, a Fox series starring everyone from Bret Harrison to Philip Baker Hall that basically no one saw. It wasn't the greatest show ever, but it deserved a better fate than it got, which was to be aired for a season no one saw, picked up for a second season that was to get a better timeslot, extensively retooled by the network for that second season, then abandoned by that same network when they realized it wasn't the show they had initially picked up. Fox buried the second season in the summer, and the show was mostly forgotten about. Now, honestly, I could understand the network's impulse in retooling the show. The work stuff in The Loop was always better than the at-home stuff, which had a tendency to be crass for the sake of being crass. But what made the show work was the uncomfortable conflict between trying to still be a college kid at home and being a responsible adult at work. When the home stuff was cut out, the show lost that.

All of this is preamble to say that I wasn't expecting Neighbors from Hell to be god-awful. Its producer and developer, Pam Brady, is someone who did good work on The Loop and was involved with South Park in its early years (though, obviously, she wasn't the creative mastermind behind the show or anything). And there were occasional moments when I thought, "Hey, this could be kind of funny!" like when the main character, Balthazor, introduced himself to the neighbors, then his wife and children, Tina, Mandy, and Josh, or when Balthazor hopes that the doorbell signals more girls from the cookie army. These are pretty funny lines, and Will Sasso delivers them well as Balthazor.

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But the rest of the show is grating, shrill, and over-obvious. The series' vision of Hell is sort of like The Flintstones in Hell. At first, I was willing to give the show the benefit of the doubt, figuring it was some sort of homage, but the "Hell is just like suburban life, but with crazy demons doing everything!" sight gags just kept coming, leading to the point where none of it was terribly funny. All I wanted was a long-nosed demon who was used as a record player to turn toward the camera, make a snide little face, and say something cutting about how sure, YOUR life might be bad, but HIS life is a living hell, nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.

Things got marginally better once Balthazor and his family were in the suburbs and trying to deal with hanging out in their new home. Well, initially, they met one of the neighbors, who picked up the poop from her dog and sniffed it, but once they were inside their new house, the writing started to get snappier. Whatever you want to say about Brady, she's got a particular perspective on life in these United States, and she comes up with snappy one-liners. I was ready to roll with the show once the family was in their new house and talking about their primary mission on Earth, which is to blend in (difficult, as they're all green) and destroy the drill Balthazor's company was building to drill right down to the center of the planet where, of course, Hell is located. Satan (voiced by Steve Coogan, of all things) is worried that the drill will destroy Hell, so he's launched an incredibly pointless and elaborate plan to rid himself of this worry. But elaborate plans are funny when unnecessary, so I'll roll with it.

Anyway, so far, so good. Things are ramping up. We're going to get some goofy satire about how the suburbs are just like Hell, and the family fits in really well because their life in the Underworld has perfectly primed them for their new home. Not the freshest take on this sort of thing, but if written and performed well, it could be great. And the show has a great voice cast, too! Molly Shannon is here, and so is Patton Oswalt, both doing pretty fine work with lines that aren't very funny on the page but kind of snap to life when the two of them give them the standard over-inflection. The other actors are all good, and it's just fun to hear Kurtwood Smith (as Balthazor's boss) say "Brunchibles." There are the elements here for a show that overcame its lame premise pilot moments and became actually funny. I even liked it when they made the Turkish guy keep saying "tapas."

But good God, the stuff back at the house ends up being just terribly painful. The neighbor lady comes back, and she's going to hang out with Tina, and then it's gradually revealed that she's not just an awful person or even a cartoon version of an awful person but a caricatured version of a cartoon version of an awful person. She's so far over the top that I think Brady and all involved think they're going to push the envelope. Instead, the envelope pushing just becomes tedious. She farts in her dog's face! She mistakes strangulation for friendship! She's just so, so wacky and so, so like that neighbor YOU hate! It's a character that has absolutely no basis in reality, and the scenes in suburbia gradually follow this approach down the path toward utter pointlessness.

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I don't mind a show that tries to offend or push the envelope or whatever. But when your only aim is to do this, you eventually create an environment where it all becomes numbing. I'm sure that all involved in the production of the show thought they were saying something interesting and cool about what it's like to live in the suburbs and how they're really like Hell and so on, but the whole thing ends up being so far gone that none of it lands. There's nothing offensive or boundary pushing about something that specifically sets out to rub your face in how edgy it is. "Edgy" has become the new lazy, in a lot of cases, and that's what ends up happening to Neighbors from Hell.

Stray observations:

  • Satan is convinced Balthazor could be the guy to take down the drill because he's apparently gleaned a huge amount of information about how we live from watching lots and lots of sitcoms. This is, I guess, an interesting enough idea for the show to have in its premise, but it never really does anything with it. It's just a thing that the show says is the case, and we're supposed to accept it.
  • Like The Loop, I think this show would be pretty easy to fix. Like The Loop, I think the temptation to fix it and thus ruin the things that could make it work will be so great that the retooled version would end up much better but also much worse at the same time.
  • Also, it's not like the work plots are a nonstop firestorm of hilarity. There's a moment when Kurtwood Smith has to access his top secret lab, and he uses an eye scan and hand scan, then sticks his penis in a hole for final verification. Hilarious! Penis!
  • No, really, let's play the penis game. Whoever says it loudest wins. I'll start. Penis!
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