If only “The Neighbors,” ABC’s stab at an aliens-among-us comedy, were a bit more like “Galaxy Quest,” and less like an extended “Coneheads” sketch. As is, the show yields one reliable gag — the alien visitors take their names from star athletes, like Larry Bird, Dick Butkus and Jackie Joyner-Kersee — and not much else. While the network is to be forgiven for betting on another purposefully silly sitcom, earthbound execution leaves this new vehicle not of the space age, but rather perilously close to the evolutionary rung the network occupied with “Cavemen.”
In its one link to reality (and horror movies), the series opens with the reminder that a really affordable house in a relatively nice community should always be viewed with suspicion. So when Marty Weaver (Lenny Venito) finds a dream home for himself, his wife Debbie (Jami Gertz) and their kids in immaculate Hidden Hills, they’re a little shocked when the neighbors arrive en masse to greet them.
It doesn’t take long for the strange-talking and acting bunch to out themselves as marooned visitors from the planet Zabvron, placing Marty and Debbie in what normally would be “flee for the hills” territory. Yet they’re gradually drawn into staying, learning about the many odd aspects of Zabvronian life, which includes males birthing progeny, crying of ears and how they might have screwed up any hope for a rescue from their faraway planet.
Although the premise allows the producers to paint with the broadest of brushes, “Neighbors” tends to approach the material in the most obvious ways, essentially using the quirky alien customs as a filter through which to contemplate our own. That’s certainly true of the second episode, which sees a simple trip to the mall through the Zabvronians’ wide eyes.
It’s somewhat offbeat, yes, but all played at such a cartoonish level as to feel like a distant throwback, a la “My Favorite Martian” or “I Dream of Jeannie,” since there’s no one akin to Mork or ALF to enliven the festivities. With his Boris Karloff voice and Mr. Peabody glasses, British actor Simon Templeman is certainly strange as the ostensible alien leader, Larry Bird, but even with him and his wife, Jackie Joyner-Kersee (Toks Olagundoye), there’s no reason to phone home about these E.T.s.
After originally, inexplicably, scheduling the show behind “Modern Family” (where it will still premiere), ABC instead decided to sandwich “Neighbors” between “The Middle” and “Modern Family,” creating what amounts to a family comedy block.
There’s no telling how mass audiences will respond to something this cheeky, which probably explains why ABC is rolling the dice. Still, if the show appears to be deflating the night, don’t be surprised if Hidden Hills’ far-away residents get beamed up sooner than anticipated.