In last week’s episode of The Neighbors, “Things Just Got Real,” it was a pleasant surprise how Toks Olagundoye’s performance (as alien matron Jackie Joyner-Kersee) was able to overcome a truly uninspired premise. (Jackie models herself after a certain reality show.) The Neighbors has quickly revealed itself to be that sort of “take your pleasures where you can get them” show, and its chief assets thus far have been Olagundoye and Simon Templeman (as alien leader Larry Bird), whose chipper, sly underplaying has been uniformly pleasant to watch, regardless of the show’s other weaknesses. Unfortunately, saddled with another mundane sitcom-standard premise this week, The Neighbors decides to rely on the little-seen kids to elevate things. It’s not a wise choice.
There’s nothing wrong with the child actors on the show as a group, but there’s a reason why last episode, which I rated as the series' best so far, was conspicuously kid-less. Creating as it has such a closed-off and limited comic world, the Weaver and Zabvronian offspring have had to be shoehorned into the already streamlined plots, when they’re not just explained away entirely as they (mostly) were last week. Plus, not to be mean, but apart from Ian Patrick’s Dick Butkus, whose articulate precociousness remains charmingly odd, the rest of the junior cast members haven’t made much of an impression. Which is a problem, since this week’s installment, “Bathroom Etiquette,” follows two mismatched pairs of the kids to their respective first days of school. (Isabella Cramp’s youngest Weaver daughter remains among the missing for the second of four episodes.)
As established in the second episode, Larry and Jackie have decided that their children, Reggie Jackson (Tim Jo) and Dick Butkus, need to go to human school as part of the Zabvronians’ desire to fit in better on Earth. To that end, they’ve been receiving nonstop advice from human mom Debbie Weaver, including the benefits of saggy jeans and untucked shirts, but as the big day approaches, the aliens find themselves chafing under Debbie’s relentless meddling. In fact, they’re downright mad about it, which manifests itself in some particularly mean rejection of her as the episode goes on, and reveals another persistent flaw in the show’s writing. Among its various deficiencies, The Neighbors keeps resetting itself between episodes, setting up a heretofore unexpressed conflict in pursuit of a new comic idea.
This week, Larry and Jackie are resentful that the Weavers keep telling them what to do. You know, in advising the Zabvronians on how to behave among other humans. You know, like Larry asked them to in the pilot. Even this exact problem of the Weavers giving parenting advice is belied by episode two, where both Larry and Jackie are horrified at the thought that their offspring would be made fun of when they attend school, and practically beg their human pals for, um, parenting advice. Sure, it appears that Debbie has gone overboard, but The Neighbors, in addition to its slapdash approach to continuity regarding the aliens’ powers, is displaying a disheartening tendency to drastically change its characters’ feelings and motivations in order to set up each week’s (not especially rewarding) wacky premise.
What pleasures are to be had from The Neighbors’ run so far have largely come from Templeman and Olagundoye. Their comedic commitment to giving their characters some semblance of an inner life is often able to wring some laughs from even a premise as terrible as last episode’s. Unfortunately, here the premise, and the one note their characters are loaded down with, defeat them. There are few chuckles in their conspiratorial attempts to master human vocal nuance (“Was that sarcasm?” “It might have been irony?” “It just felt right.”), but being required to act alternately clueless (about Dick’s behavior at school) and contemptuous (of the Weavers’ lifestyle and intentions) robs them of much of their charm.
As for Marty and Debbie, without the Zabvronians’ quirks and mannerisms to fall back on, Lenny Venito and Jami Gertz are fighting a losing battle, especially since their non-alien-related family bickering is written without much depth. Marty’s the put-upon manchild, eking out his pleasures through stolen moments of boyish rebellion. (This week, he eats half a carton of ice cream on the way home from the market. Using a picture of the kids as a spoon.) Debbie’s the overprotective, meddling, needling busybody who treats Marty as one of the kids. She is essentially every sitcom wife cliche ever. While Venito’s underplaying can be endearing, poor Jami Gertz isn’t able to bring much to Debbie, especially since she’s showing a tendency to hit her lines too hard. This week’s episode, requiring Debbie to go overboard as it does, unfortunately highlights that tendency, and Debbie’s hectoring proves pretty insufferable.
As for the parallel school plots, while neither is interesting, the younger kids’ once again shows just how modest the show’s ambitions are. The high schoolers’ plot is dull enough to be a lost episode of Saved By The Bell. Clara Mamet’s Amber has a huge zit and wants to be popular, while Reggie Jackson crushes on Amber. To be fair, the show seems as bored with it as I was.
In the younger kids’ half of the story however, The Neighbors introduces a development seemingly designed to take the show in a radical direction, only to drop it in the most perfunctory way possible. In this part of the plot, Dick Butkus reveals his true form to some grade school bullies in order to protect Max Weaver from some serious swirly-ing. This seems like a game changer: I mean, two kids actually saw a little boy clap his hands and transform into a green frog monster right there in the boys room. That has to mean the show is about to discard the cozy domestic sitcom world its lived in so far and turn into the last season of Mork And Mindy, right? No, of course not. All it takes is one more trip to the principal’s office where the cowering, traumatized bullies, alongside their clearly concerned parents, are summarily dismissed with a Neighbors-style (read: bland and uninspired) version of Fawlty Towers’ “He’s from Barcelona” to explain the Zabvronians’ odd “British” behavior. While I wasn’t necessarily clamoring for the show to start a series of episodes where the aliens’ true nature is almost discovered (and agree with Erik’s appreciation for the quick reveal in the pilot), it’s, again, disappointing that the dramatic stakes are so low. The status quo is restored, and all that’s left is for Larry and Jackie to “suspend” Dick from the ceiling for a week. Because he’s been suspended. Get it?
- Two of the most disturbing revelations about the Zabvronians this week: They educate their children by feeding them the brains of their elders, and apparently, the sons eventually overthrow their fathers and marry their mothers? Not judging, but…
- Not that I really want to get into this, but since the aliens plant foliage in their toilets but (as established this episode) also have three anuses, um, where are they doing their business?
- The Neighbors continues to present its worst double entendres as if they’re going to bring the house down. This week: “We could be home in the bathroom, trimming our respective bushes.” And, “I want to express my love of Dick!” That’s the sort of lines that are going to get censored upon the inevitable pickup by ABC Family.
- The aliens’ adoption of famous athletes’ names actually pays off when Debbie, mocking the kids’ golf apparel for making them look like Arnold Palmer, elicits Jackie’s retort, “What has Arnold Palmer ever done to you except watch your house when you’re away and pick up your mail?”
- ”It seems I’ve graduated from sarcasm to sass.”