Wednesday TV Review: ABC's Unwelcome Neighbors, Resolving SVU, CSI Cliffhangers
Lenny Venito and Jami Gertz
E.T.s, go home! Less out-of-this-world than out of its league, ABC's The Neighbors (9:31/8:31c) stands out on the network's celebrated Wednesday comedy lineup like a wart on a hand model. Cheerfully ridiculous and unapologetically moronic, this aliens-among-us sitcom follows a long and mostly proudly silly TV tradition that includes Mork & Mindy, ALF and 3rd Rock From the Sun. Nothing wrong with a goofy guilty pleasure in the right circumstances and if blessed with the genius of a John Lithgow or a Robin Williams — or an ALF.
Sadly, Neighbors settles for charmless performances, stupid jokes and sight gags that might be funny once, such as naming all of the aliens after famous sports figures (like Larry Bird and Jackie Joyner-Kersee), but with repetition grows fretfully stale. It all begins when a brash New Jersey family moves into an exclusive gated community that seems too good to be true — which of course it is. This secluded Stepford enclave of suburban conformity and ubiquitous golf carts turns out to be a haven for refugees from the planet Zabvron, who hide their green alien bodies inside human meat suits but haven't quite mastered such basics as shaking hands (they use their thumbs) and shedding tears (they ooze green goo from their ears). And the men carry the babies. The show is that clever. And the alien leaders (Larry and Jackie) talk in plummy British accents "because they make your guttural dialect sound sophisticated."
Sophistication is the least of The Neighbors' goals, which is why the critical community screamed in aghast unison last spring during the network upfront presentations when it was originally announced that this show would follow three-time Emmy champ Modern Family on Wednesdays. The standard-bearer for quality network comedy yoked to this kooky claptrap? Wiser minds prevailed, up to a point, and after this week's programming premiere stunt, hoping to capitalize on Modern's latest Emmy triumph, Neighbors will move next week to the comfy hammock (at 8:30/9:30c) between The Middle and Modern. An even better idea: Move this to Fridays, away from the top-shelf brands, when the "TGIF" franchise is rebooted in early November.
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It's entirely possible, of course, that The Neighbors will become a surprise wacky hit, boosted by its placement amid some of TV's very best comedies. (Or maybe it will be this season's Work It.) Maybe it will even grow on me — although next week's episode, which sends some of the Zabvronians on an excursion to a local shopping mall ("It's like a planet unto itself," they marvel) left me even less impressed. I did laugh, though, when one of the alien parents expressed concern over what might be in those things called "kids' meals." Even we humans are kind of afraid to know that.
In other ABC comedy news, The Middle (8/7c) starts its new season with an hour-long episode — think "How the Hecks Spent Their Summer Vacation" — and Modern Family (9/8c) returns on an Emmy high, with Gloria still wondering how to break the news of her unexpected blessed event to Jay. On his birthday.
THE CRIME BLOTTER: The worst thing about many TV cliffhangers is the need to resolve them when the new season comes around, forcing some awfully convoluted plotting even by the crime genre's loose standards. And so it is with a two-hour season premiere of NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (9/8c), which left us last spring with the grisly image of Capt. Kragen (Dann Florek) waking with literal blood on his hands, the dead-hooker version of a horse's head in his bed. The lesson of this story: "There's nothing more dangerous than a trapped whoremonger," says one who should know (House's Peter Jacobson as a rival pimp) when the NYPD hierarchy gets caught up in a war between flesh peddlers. Another moral: "Everybody has secrets," this pearl of wisdom delivered by a D.A. from the Public Integrity department, nicely played by Paget Brewster, who looks as relieved as we are to see her emerge from the sludge of Criminal Minds.
With Kragen behind bars — Really? No one in charge can see this is an obvious set-up? — the SVU squad gets a temporary new captain (Chuck's Adam Baldwin, a very good fit), and the case proves damaging to a number of personal relationships. My favorite moments, as a longtime New Yorker: watching the all-too-brief return of local-legend NBC anchor Sue Simmons as a newscaster reporting on all of the crazy twists. How I've missed her.
At least CBS' CSI (10/9c) manages to keep its mayhem contained within a single hour, as a distraught D.B. Russell (Ted Danson) is so determined to get his kidnapped granddaughter back from a cabal of corrupt cops that he starts packing heat. No one he points the piece at believes he'll use it, though. (In his mind's eye is a different story, and in this episode, you can't always believe what you're seeing.) Among the other plot points left dangling: Stokes' resignation and the shooting of boss man Ecklie in front of his crime-lab daughter. The real stand-out in this episode is Elisabeth Shue as Russell's #2 Julie "Finn" Finlay, using her sexy wiles to get inside the kidnappers' lair and trying her best to become a Shue-perhero.
WHAT ELSE IS ON? Comedy Central's eternal South Park (10/9c) returns with new episodes, tackling football's concussion crisis — a more timely issue might be replacement referees, no? — and it's being paired with the channel's best sketch-comedy series, Key & Peele (10:30/9:30c). Saturday Night Live would kill for a bit as funny as Obama's "anger translator." ... Need a refresher course before Revenge takes up shop in its new Sunday time period this week? ABC hits all the high points of the first season in a recap special (10/9c) titled "The First Chapter." ... It's a rough week for stealth celebrity Lisa Whelchel (The Facts of Life) on CBS' Survivor (8/7c). ... Big Love's Jeanne Tripplehorn joins the BAU team on CBS' Criminal Minds (9/8c) as a linguistics expert. ... Some critics are singling out The Neighbors as the season's worst new sitcom. I disagree. It may aim low, but at least it's different. Which is more than you can say for the mediocrities setting up shop on NBC in their regular time periods: Animal Practice (8/7c) and Guys With Kids (8:30/7:30c).
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