Speaking of kids’ shows...

It’s hard not to root a little for a show that is an old-fashioned, high-concept fantasy comedy


Or maybe shows that should be for kids but aren’t yet…

One of the more controversial comedy pilots of the season is The Neighbors, though it was somewhat protected from the kind of criticism it might have gotten because Animal Practice was the most tempting target of the year. (A comedy about aliens, generally, seems more legit than a comedy with a monkey.) The pilot wasn’t very funny, and someone really needs to inform ABC that another show about two attractive wife/unattractive guy couples is not very fresh even when the show is a fantasy. Still, it’s hard not to root a little for a show that is an old-fashioned, high-concept fantasy comedy. There haven’t been many in recent years, even though advances in TV special effects have – at least in theory – made it easier to do this kind of show and do it right.

(Also, the return of single-camera comedy to the major networks ought to provide an opening for supernatural comedy, the way it did in the ’60s. In the ’90s, if you wanted to do a fantasy show, you had to do it on a three-camera schedule – like Sabrina at best, Meego at worst – and that heavily limited the range of plots and special effects. A show like I Dream of Jeannie, being one-camera, could go anywhere and do anything, within reason, and in theory, a show like The Neighbors could make the fantasy more organic to the show than 3rd Rock From the Sun or Mork and Mindy, which basically couldn’t use special effects on a regular basis because they were done with an audience. Yet oddly there are fewer special effects comedies now than there were in the ’90s.)

The thing that makes me wonder if The Neighbors is sustainable, more than the lack of laughs in the pilot (which can always be punched up once the writing staff arrives), is the confused tone of the show. Although the subject matter is pure zany fantasy, the tone of a lot of the pilot was really that of a rather drab domestic comedy about learning to be a better husband and parent. That may be what a show needs to be to fit with Modern Family. It’s also part of the change-of-pace concept behind the pilot: instead of the usual setup of making the aliens the outsiders in our world, we focus on an all-alien neighborhood where the humans are the ones who need to learn to fit in. But it’s hard to see a wide range of plots coming out of this premise, because it’s so focused on the neighborhood and the domestic issues.

Most of the long-lasting fantasy sitcoms, like Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, had things they could go to beyond the domestic fantasy, because those stories got used up pretty quickly. If The Neighbors goes for thirteen weeks and is still doing little stories about the parallels between alien and human jerkass husbands, I wonder if people will start longing for some really zany, My Favorite Martian type plots.

Another thing that might contribute to the confusion about what The Neighbors is supposed to be is that it’s the kind of show that should have children as a core audience, and has been announced as a family show, but doesn’t – yet – have a lot of stuff to appeal to children. I don’t mean that a comedy about aliens is exclusively a kiddie show, but that supernatural comedies are known for attracting children, and they sort of live or die based on whether they can get parents and children to watch together. That in turn requires an adult supernatural character who can appeal to kids: kids liked the witches on Bewitched, they liked Jeannie, they liked Uncle Martin, they liked Dick and Harry Solomon, they liked Mork. (On Mork and Mindy, part of the purpose of the tag scenes was to make sure that Robin Williams could appear in his alien space suit, which kids loved.) So far The Neighbors has only one alien family with any prominence, and they’re not really very interesting in the pilot. On the other hand, Simon Templeman is goofy-looking enough that he could become a family favourite if handled correctly.

Still, supernatural comedy is a rare enough beast on the major networks these days that I hope they can figure things out, get beyond the alien twists on standard ABC Wednesday night comedy plots, and pave the way for other shows of this type. Supernatural comedy is really tough to do well, in part because the plots always require the writers to make up a lot of arbitrary rules to create artificial suspense. (We saw this in the pilot of The Neighbors, where the climax involves some alien rule that’s introduced solely for plot purposes. It almost takes longer to explain the rule than it does to resolve that particular plot point.) But they are still worth doing if only because they provide a bigger scope than most half-hours and an ability to comment on contemporary society without being message-y. Of course, that presupposes that you have writers who are willing to get beyond repeated jokes about aliens who name their kids after Dick Butkus. Honestly, I think 3rd Rock titles pretty much ran “dick” jokes into the ground 15 years ago, even for shows that aren’t about aliens.