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The Neighbors’ Dan Fogelman on turning a critical flop into “an unstoppable beast”

During the Television Critics Association 2013 winter press tour, ABC treated critics to a pie break “sponsored” by The Neighbors. Sadly, the pie was mediocre, but beyond that, it’s nothing short of remarkable that the series was featured at the event at all, given its initial reviews, which were awful, to put it mildly. What a difference half a season makes: Last week, ABC rolled out a new promo for The Neighbors that opened with a collection of several of the series’ more high-profile critical thrashings, then closed with more recent, decidedly more positive appraisals from many of the same publications. With The Hollywood Reporter breaking the story that Star Trek icon and Internet superstar George Takei is guest-starring on the season finale as the father of alien leader Larry Bird (played by Simon Templeman), and TV Guide revealing that Mark Hamill will play Takei’s co-worker, The A.V. Club reached out to series creator Dan Fogelman (who also scripted The Guilt Trip and Crazy, Stupid, Love.) to see what else he might reveal about the remainder of The Neighbors’ first season.

The A.V. Club: Can you give us any more info about the finale?

Dan Fogelman: Well, Takei plays Larry Bird’s father, and he’s coming back to basically put him out of the mission in the final episode of the season. So as our season builds to a close, we literally have war descending on this little gated community in New Jersey. [Laughs.]


AVC: There have been occasional hints about the aliens’ mission, but nothing particularly specific.

DF: Yeah, throughout the season, we’ve kind of always played that there was this nebulous mission and faction back home, but we never delved too high into the “What’s going on back home?” of it all. It’s just been this Samuel Beckett/Waiting For Godot thing, where they’re just interminably waiting, with no instruction from home. In the final episode of the season, though, the adults go to Atlantic City for an overnight trip to have a little time away from the kids, and they leave the two teenagers in charge of the houses and the little ones for the first time. And Dick Butkus [Ian Patrick] starts getting communications from home, from his grandfather, saying, “We’re coming, but don’t tell your parents.” Oh, and Takei’s method of communication is toast that keeps popping up in the toaster with messages written on it. [Laughs.]

AVC: Was it difficult to get Takei to commit to another science-fiction role?

DF: Actually, I haven’t even met him yet! [Laughs.] I sent him a letter. My plan was always to get him to come and play Simon’s father in the final episode of the season. We have a bunch of Trekkies on our staff, and on top of that, I’m a huge Howard Stern fan, so I wrote him a note and told him I feel like I know him better now, more personally, than I did when he was just on Star Trek. And he said he would come and do it. My long-term thought is that there’s the potential of having the fun in season two of the uninvited in-laws showing up on Earth, so we’d get to play the fun of new aliens experiencing Earth for the first time. But that’s if, in fact, we decide to bring Larry Bird’s parents to Earth.


AVC: How did Mark Hamill come into play?

DF: I’d always thought that, in all the great sci-fi constructs, there’s always the guy who seems like he’s the commander, but then you reveal that there’s an even bigger puppetmaster up above and beyond him. Like, Darth Vader isn’t the ultimate bad guy, the Emperor is. So the thought with Hamill was that, in the final scene of the season, there’d just be a hint of who Takei is dealing with back home. We’re painting them as these two guys are always bickering about how they’re gonna do things and who’s right and who’s wrong, and that’s kind of the relationship we start setting up for hopefully the future seasons.


AVC: Are there any overt Star Trek vs. Star Wars references?

DF: You know, when Mark first read it… We put in one little hint of a Star Wars vs. Star Trek allusion, and even at that, we weren’t sure if Mark would like it or not. He was kind of, “Eh, I dunno, this is not what I’m looking to do right now.” So I called him and said, “That’s actually not what we’re doing,” and he came in, we sat down, and I explained it to him. I think it’s gonna be really fun.


AVC: How do you feel about The Neighbors’ chances for a second season?

DF: I feel really good about it. Right now, we’re by far the highest rated new comedy out there. Given where we started, with the critical response and everything, I think we’ve managed to do really well. We’re holding our audience every week, and that’s not really common of the new shows that have started this season. I know the network’s been really supportive and is really fond of the show.


AVC: So whose idea was the promo comparing the bad and good reviews of the show?

DF: That was mine. [Laughs.] Because, y’know, despite the initial backlash against “the alien sitcom,” we felt confident from the beginning, but we feel really confident with what we’ve got now, and I think that confidence shows when you literally start a commercial with all the shit that people said about you when you first started. I think it’s a really ballsy, fun approach. The network kind of took that idea and ran with it, and I think they’re doing a really cool job with it.


AVC: Did you, uh, happen to read any of The A.V. Club’s reviews of the show?

DF: Y’know, at a certain point, when all of the reviews are so nasty and negative, you just stop reading them in general, so I have to tell you, I don’t remember, honestly. Were they terrible? You know, don’t answer that. I’m just going to presume they were. [Laughs.] But, look, I’ve been doing this for a while, and I don’t really get it, but there can be a groundswell of positive reviews where it just starts and gradually becomes an unstoppable beast. It just takes a while to change the tide sometimes. Okay, yeah, maybe you don’t see what other people see and you just don’t agree, but we have really smart, accomplished people on this show, and… I mean, I just think this show’s really good. Slowly but surely, I think we’re gonna outlast all the naysayers.


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