The Neighbors

ABC has been running a series of ads lately for The Neighbors quoting TV critics who trashed the show when it premiered in September but have since changed their mind or at least lightened up about this harmless time-waster. I was not among those quoted, for good reason. I'm hardly a fan, but even back in the fall, I knew there were far worse sitcoms to get riled up about — including elsewhere on Wednesday (NBC's DOA Animal Practice and the presumably soon-to-vanish mediocrity Guys With Kids) — and my main objection, then as now, is its occupation of prime real estate between two infinitely better comedies, The Middle and Modern Family. (Being a chronic time-shifter, I and my DVR tend to skip over The Neighbors, and the few times I've checked in over the months only reinforced that decision.) Looking back at my initial review, my assessment of The Neighbors as "cheerfully ridiculous and unapologetically moronic" still seems about right.

Nothing wrong with a silly guilty pleasure, if this is your sort of thing, and sometimes one can even hit a high note, which is why I'm glad ABC made this week's episode (8:30/7:30) available for an advance preview. It helps that it aims at one of my own sweet spots, the Broadway musical, as the alien neighbors develop a sudden affinity for show tunes, and when the Weavers decline to share their passion, Larry and Jackie decide to stage their own jaunty production number (music by Disney veteran Alan Menken), with lyrics including a literal slap at Glee. It ends with a most unfortunate show stopper that brings a TV news crew into their midst, and in their world, any publicity is bad publicity. (A subplot about the human Weaver kids staging a rebellious coup against their parents reminds me why I usually give this show a wide berth.) And special kudos to the meta joke evoking 3rd Rock From the Sun, as if directed at critics (me included) who hold that show up as an example of how to do this sort of thing better. That took nerve and is almost something to sing about.

It also took guts to schedule a musical episode opposite the first night of the finals on Fox's American Idol (8/7c), as the Top 10 perform for America's vote. The biggest surprise in last Thursday's well-produced (except for the time overrun) reveal celebration was that the voters didn't let any of the more egregious "personalities" through and instead rewarded most of the best singers. Could make for some nail-biting and emotional eliminations over the next couple of weeks.

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SPYING ON A MARRIAGE:
Make that two marriages, because FX's absorbing espionage drama The Americans (10/9c) is just as intent this week in exploring the fissures in the 20-year relationship of the couple who live across the street from the closeted Russian spies: FBI guy Stan Beeman (played with great subtlety by Noah Emmerich) and his neglected wife Sandra (Susan Misner). "Marriage is hard," counsels Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) as the wives bond while the husbands are elsewhere: the seemingly decent Stan working another late night, distracted by and obsessed with his beautiful Russian mole Nina; and Elizabeth's estranged husband Philip (Matthew Rhys), still smarting from last week's revelations, off on a mission that reunites him with a lost love who predated the arrival of Elizabeth into his life.

The Americans looks deep into the emotional undercurrents of people who traffic in the business of deception, asking if any of these professional liars is capable of sustaining a real relationship. There are no easy answers in this episode, written by veteran producer Joshua Brand (Northern Exposure, St. Elsewhere). The one sure thing is the animosity that still simmers between Elizabeth and the handler Claudia (Margo Martindale), to whom she gave such a savage beating last week. In a scene fairly crackling with murderous tension, Claudia warns her hostile charge, "Bad things happen not only in literature." That's just what we need: more tension on the home front.

THE WEDNESDAY GUIDE: CBS' Survivor (8/7c) is promising a first: a "history-making meltdown" after nutty "favorite" Brandon reveals his bizarre fantasies about sabotaging his own camp. Hope whatever happens is more satisfying than the "first" that occurred on last Sunday's The Amazing Race, in which the idiots holding the Express Pass refused to use it, coming in last. Although anything that would hasten Brandon's departure is OK by me. ... Regina King directs an episode of TNT's Southland (10/9c) in which her character, Lydia, reconnects with a prisoner she helped send to death row, while patrolman John Cooper (Michael Cudlitz) considers the prospect of life outside the LAPD. ... On USA Network's perfectly psilly Psych (10/9c) the guys go on the search for Bigfoot with college students filming a documentary. ... Discovery Channel tags along with Department of Homeland Security agents as they attempt to stop the flow of drugs and guns, often linked to terrorist groups, from coming across our northern threshold in Under Siege: America's Northern Border (8/7c).

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