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The Neighbors: “A Christmas Story”

Illustration for article titled iThe Neighbors/i: “A Christmas Story”
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Goddammit, I wanted to know what was in that box!

The first Neighbors Christmas episode was the one where it seemed like a lot of critics wrote kinder appreciations of the show than they had initially, foreshadowing the show’s general turnaround within the critical community in 2013. But it was never my favorite episode, for reasons I can’t quite remember. (I think I found it too manic; we all know how particular I am about entertainments that dare to mention Dec. 25.) “A Christmas Story,” on the other hand, mixes up a bunch of different sitcom Christmas stories and is much smaller in terms of its stakes. The show has more or less settled into its life as a fairly straightforward sitcom now—there’s far fewer storylines where the Weavers explain life on Earth to the Zabvronians, and that’s a good thing—and that means this episode was an improvement, at least for me. In fact, when the camera panned across the scene in the Weaver home at episode’s end, with Marty popping up out of the giant ball pit that was now his backyard, I felt positively heartwarmed.


Though The Neighbors has been mostly working creatively this season, it’s been a bit of a rougher road for it in terms of the ratings. Perhaps surprisingly, the show’s loony single-camera wonderland hasn’t proved a great match with the more traditional Last Man Standing (which I talked about a bit last week), and that’s meant the ratings have fallen off from the lead-in, sometimes by quite a bit. Things turned around somewhat last week, and that’s an encouraging sign, but I’m still hoping that whatever’s left of this second season doesn’t turn out to be all we get of the show, which seems to be just hitting its stride, such as it were. Fortunately for the series, “A Christmas Story” is one of the season’s better episodes, and Christmas episodes tend to be heavily sampled. Maybe this will work out all right in the end.

If there’s one complaint I consistently have about the show still, it’s that it insists on including moments of more-or-less straightforward “heart” at the end of every episode. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a big, goofy comedy going after the moments that tug at the heartstrings—after all, Community was pretty great at it back in the day—but The Neighbors always feels like everything is coming to a halt when the jokes drop out and the schmaltzy music kicks in. I’ve liked some of these moments in and of themselves—in fact, the one in this episode (with Reggie Jackson discovering Amber has painted a galaxy on his ceiling) was pretty okay as these things go—but the show is such a manic little joke machine that it always feels abrupt and bizarre when it makes that shift, just as it did here. Far better in terms of heart are the moments when the camera pulls back a little and just observes how much these characters seem to genuinely like each other. This is rarely a show that has to force things, and the montages often make me feel manipulated in a bad way.


But! What’s really working this season is the way that the show is playing around with new character combinations and storylines, really putting everything it can think of into the blender and mixing it up. Tonight’s episode doesn’t have storylines so much as suggestions of stories; it knows that you’ve seen a lot of this before and can fill in the blanks. That’s what makes it so entertaining to watch, say, Amber and Jackie Joyner-Kersee go to the mall to pick out a present for Reggie, that he doesn’t leave Amber in favor of Jane. This is the kind of show that can get away with a plot like that and with foregrounding the plot by tossing out a bit of meta-commentary on the show as a whole. “Is this the first conversation we’ve ever had?” Jackie asks Amber when the storyline begins, and it very well might be. This is also the kind of show where I don’t mind the exposition, because it’s just so weird, as when Jackie pauses to remind the audience Jane is “my son’s intergalactic soul mate.” The show has fun with the stupid bullshit it has to do to keep the sitcom salt mines in operation, and that means everything else is a lot of fun, too.

Nothing in “A Christmas Story” is trying to reinvent the wheel, but that’s what makes it so enjoyable. What I like about the show is how it practices what I might call story propagation. A main story splits off into two smaller stories, which split off into two smaller stories, etc., until everybody has something to do. In this episode, it proceeds thusly: It’s Christmastime, so Amber and Reggie are wondering to get each other, while Dick wants an ant farm his father refuses to get him. These two stories split off into even smaller stories, as Jackie helps Amber pick out the perfect present for her son, while Abby helps Reggie understand that what Amber wants isn’t a present that will overwhelm her with his love but, instead, a present that’s just a suggestion that he kinda likes her. But maybe even smaller. The other storyline, meanwhile, splits off into Larry’s attempts to hide his ant farm from Dick and Debbie’s decision to purchase one for him herself. Finally, the Debbie story splits off its own branch to reveal what happens when Max asks his dad for a Princess Leia doll for Christmas.


To be honest, not every resolution here worked. The ant farm reveal felt like it needed a little more time to really be impressive, and the fact that Max just wanted the Princess Leia doll because it was hot was a little too convenient of a beat to place on the scene. But the reason I seem to harp on endings the most with this show is because it just isn’t a show that’s built to really accommodate them. The series is far more about building the kind of comedic chaos that results when, say, Larry barges into the Weavers’ home to give their kids the gifts they really wanted. (Even in the midst of that chaos, the show maintains a weird connection to its own reality, as it reveals that Larry took out a second mortgage to afford those gifts.) I can’t be too mad at The Neighbors for not knowing how to wrap up an episode, because it would be hard to bring most of these stories to perfectly wrought endings. Instead, I’m just going to be happy we get this kind of wacky weirdness for as long as we get it.

But I still want to know what was in the box Jane got for Reggie.

Stray observations:

  • I don’t know how long it took the writers to come up with Reggie’s gift for Amber, but she’s right that it’s weirdly perfect. I genuinely do care—at least a bit—about the romantic connection between these two. I don’t know if I care to the degree that it’s become one of the plot engines of the show, but it’s more interesting to me than I expected it to be.
  • For some reason, I thought Larry’s ant plantation would be a lot more exciting than just what it was. I demand a plantation home made out of plexiglass!
  • Speaking of Jane, Megan Park is in kind of a thankless role, but she’s doing fine work with it. I wouldn’t mind her sticking around on a more permanent basis.

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