Ellen Gray: 'The Neighbors' is set in the suburbs, with space aliens

Lenny Venito (left) and Jami Gertz (center) portray parents of three who move into a suburban neighborhood inhabited by extraterrestrials.
Lenny Venito (left) and Jami Gertz (center) portray parents of three who move into a suburban neighborhood inhabited by extraterrestrials.
Posted: September 26, 2012

* THE NEIGHBORS. 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, moving to 8:30 p.m. next week, 6ABC.

HERE'S A news flash, in case you missed the Emmys on Sunday: ABC's "Modern Family" returns with new episodes Wednesday.

And having successfully expanded TV's definition of kinship to include families gay and straight, blended and extended, it's lending a hand to a new ABC family that goes where, OK, more than one sitcom has gone before: the suburbs. With extraterrestrials.

ABC's "The Neighbors," set in a New Jersey housing development known as Hidden Hills that for 10 years has been wholly owned and occupied by a group of stranded aliens, will premiere after "Modern Family" before moving next week to a slightly less cushy spot at 8:30 p.m., behind "The Middle" (which also returns Wednesday in an hour-long premiere).

There are critics, really good critics, who'll tell you that "The Neighbors" is the worst new show of the fall.

I'm saying they need to take another look. The first two episodes of "The Neighbors" actually made me laugh more than once - and without the aid of mood-altering substances.

Lenny Venito and Jami Gertz star as the Earthling couple who inadvertently move with their three children into Hidden Hills, where they very quickly discover the neighbors aren't quite as diverse as they first appear.

For one thing, they're all named after major sports figures.

Simon Templeman plays an alien leader (and the new family's next-door neighbor) named Larry Bird, and Toks Olagundoye his wife, named Jackie Joyner-Kersee. This may be the show's biggest joke (at least until the second episode, when Joyner-Kersee reveals her greatest fears about American fast food), but I found it weirdly endearing.

Creator Dan Fogelman ("Cars," "Bolt"), a 1997 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, probably wouldn't object to criticism that "The Neighbors" feels like an '80s throwback.

"I'm a child of television," he told me an interview in this summer in Beverly Hills, Calif. "Some of my fondest memories of my family, who didn't share a dinner, necessarily, every night together, was sitting around the TV, watching 'The Cosby Show,' and everybody laughing at the same thing."

He said he hadn't watched "3rd Rock from the Sun" regularly, "but I've seen it on occasion and I really liked it."

On "The Neighbors," "once you get past aliens . . . this is not much different than if an American family moved into a community and everyone there was English and stuffy," said Fogelman, who also studied English literature at Oxford.

And what of the parents who sent their kid off to Penn and Oxford, only to have him end up writing screenplays about talking cars and TV shows about suburban extraterrestrials?

Fogelman's mother died "a couple of years ago, but I'm doing a movie about her that comes out in December. Barbra Streisand's playing my mom. It's called 'The Guilt Trip,' " he said, adding that his mother had been "very into all this stuff. And my dad comes to all the premieres and loves it."

As for the aliens, "There's 20 alien movies a year - why can't there be one alien TV show?"

Contact Ellen Gray at graye@phillynews.com or 215-854-5950. Follow her on Twitter @elgray. Read her blog at EllenGray.tv.

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