tek's rating:

The Neighbors, on ABC
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Caution: potential spoilers.

So there's this family, Marty and Debbie Weaver and their kids, Amber, Max,and Abby, who move into a gated community called "Hidden Hills." Their new neighbors seem fairly odd, and the Weavers soon discover that they (and everyone else in the community) are aliens, from the planet Zabvron. (They've been on a mission to study Earth culture for about 10 years, but they never leave their community, and it seems like they don't know much about us, beyond pop culture.) In addition to human appearance, they've assumed human names; they're all named after famous athletes. The leader of the community is called Larry Bird, and his wife is called Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Their kids are called Reggie Jackson and Dick Butkus. I wasn't really expecting to like the show, but it turned out to be reasonably amusing. And it got better as it progressed. It's got clever writing and good acting all around. I also like the fact that the show occasionally leans rather heavily on the fourth wall. Also there are some good musical episodes and good holiday episodes. And stuff. But what's best about the show is the fact that the characters are all so distinctive and likable. On the surface they may seem a bit clichéd, but they all have hidden depths. Sort of.

Marty may seem like a typical sitcom husband and father, who's well-meaning but ineffectual and, like, clueless, or whatever; a guy who wants to see himself as better than he is at various things, but deep down he recognizes his flaws. Which naturally makes him sometimes underestimate his own value. And Debbie seems like a typical sitcom wife and mother, who's overwhelmed by all the responsibilities and demands upon her, but who ultimately has more control over her family than Marty does. Though she wants more for herself, too, and can get discouraged at her own inadequacies. But Marty and Debbie clearly love and support each other, and despite all the standard sitcom trappings of their relationship, they come off as very real, both as individuals and as a couple. And then, all that is complicated by their new friendship with their alien neighbors. Marty and Larry become friends, as do Debbie and Jackie, and the humans constantly try to explain various aspects of life on Earth to them, while the aliens make plenty of mistakes. While this is mostly played for laughs, there's a certain degree of heart to it all. And I think there's a subtle undercurrent to the show, about the fact that life on this planet can often seem incomprehensible and absurd even to us humans. Seriously... does anyone really understand life? (Marty and Debbie seem to be at their most confident when dealing with aliens who seem far more clueless than themselves, but it's frequently obvious they're fairly clueless about their own lives, though no more so than anyone else on Earth.) Still... Zabvronian culture definitely seems weirder than human culture, for the most part.

As for Larry Bird, he tends to disdain human culture, to a great extent, and often seems unwilling to learn to fit in. He really wants the community, and particularly his immediate family, to maintain their Zabvronian customs. Jackie, on the other hand, is far more interested in fitting in with the humans. It should also be remembered that Larry is his people's leader, and he wants respect from them and from his family. For the most part, they go along with his wishes, even when those wishes are obviously ridiculous, but they can also defy him, at times. There's also the fact that Zabvronian society is rather sexist, by our standards, but Jackie is beginning to become somewhat liberated (even if she still loves her husband). And Larry is starting to come to terms with that, I guess. He's coming to terms with a lot of things, actually, about life on Earth, and occasionally seems to enjoy some aspects of human culture, and friendship with the Weavers.

Meanwhile, Reggie seems a bit more comfortable with humans. His alien heritage provides some weirdness, but if he doesn't exactly fit in with human teenagers, it's more a matter of normal awkwardness and slightly nerdy tendencies than of being an alien. Really, he's basically a typical uncool kid trying to be cool. (And while he's far more loyal to his parents than most human teenagers, he also sometimes seems to have a human teenager's perspective, the same sense of understanding things better than his parents do. He's definitely the most normal member of his family.) He also fairly quickly becomes friends with Amber Weaver, and soon develops a crush on her. She barely seems to tolerate him (or any of the aliens) at first, but that's not because they're aliens, so much as it is because she's a typical snarky, antisocial kind of teenage girl, who tends to feel like everyone around her is an idiot, or at least annoying. But she gradually gets to genuinely like Reggie as a friend... and possibly more. (The whole subplot about whether they'll eventually admit their true feelings and start dating kind of weirds me out a little, because, while we rarely see the Zabvronians' true forms, they are substantially different from humans, and I can't imagine either race would be capable of finding the other attractive. But a larger issue is that Zabvronian romantic relationships work substantially differently than human ones. It doesn't seem as if they even have any kind of physical intimacy at all.) Um, I should also say that an interesting dynamic eventually develops between Amber and Larry. It's occasionally obvious that they have some things in common, and he may even seem eager to pursue a vague sort of... camaraderie... with her. But while she may occasionally appreciate their commonalities, for the most part she remains her typical snarky self, toward him. As for her relationship with her own parents... she mostly seems like a typical teenager who disdains them, but as the show progresses, there are occasional moments where she seems to actually care about them. Which probably wouldn't have happened so soon, if they weren't living among aliens.

Then there are the younger kids. I think Max and Dick are in the same grade (they're both about 10 years old), and Abby's like a couple years younger. It doesn't really seem like Max or Abby get a lot to do on the show, but when they do, they're reasonably amusing; they both seem fairly sarcastic, even if not quite at the same level as Amber, yet. Dick gets substantially more screen time. He can also be sarcastic, and he seems to have a lot of his father in him, and desperately wants to earn Larry's approval. I'd say he and his father are the two most overtly abnormal and comical characters on the show, while taking themselves far more seriously than anyone else. But really, everyone on this show is funny, everyone can be sarcastic, everyone can be ridiculous while trying to be serious, and everyone ultimately seems to have a good heart. I just think it's a really neat trick how thoroughly sitcom-y all the individual aspects of the show can be, but the sum of the parts is... greater than... whatever. Um, I mean... in spite of how utterly ridiculous and gimmicky it all is, I just think all the characters feel a bit more realistic than the characters on most sitcoms. I cannot stress enough the fact that this show only works because the actors are all so good, and the characters play so well off each other. The writing is definitely a lot better than might be expected of a show with this one's premise, but even good writing could come off badly, in the hands of less talented actors. (And yes, the aliens may sometimes seem a bit over-the-top, but that's how they're meant to seem. It doesn't change the fact that they have serious sides and real feelings, and are struggling to understand our world, while missing their own.) Anyway... I'm sorely tempted to put my review under "quirky," and maybe someday I'll move it there... but for now, in spite of my insisting that the show is more than just a sitcom, I still think that's the best fit.

At the end of season one, Larry's father (played by George Takei) orders the Zabvronians to return home, but they refuse, so he cuts off their funding. Which means that in season two, both Larry and Jackie have to find jobs. Also, Reggie and Amber are now dating. But Zabvronians don't choose their mates the way humans do; rather they have actual soulmates they're destined to be with, and literally magnetically attracted to. Reggie's soulmate, Jane, comes to Earth to compete with Amber for Reggie. She seems very sweet, and patient, but she can afford to be, because she knows with unshakable biological certainty that she and Reggie are destined to be together, no matter how much Reggie loves Amber. And eventually Debbie decides to go to business school. And... lots of other stuff happens. But at the end of the season, Larry's brother (who has taken the name DJ Jazzy Jeff) comes to Earth, sent by their father to manipulate the Zabvronians into returning home. At this point I don't want to say how that all plays out, but it definitely set up a major change for the show's future, which would be interesting to see. Unfortunately, there won't be a third season. I'm not super bummed about it, but still it's a shame.

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