There goes the neighbourhood.
That seems to be the reaction of many TV to "The Neighbors," a new sitcom airing Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. on ABC.
The broad comedy stands out for its high concept in a season of none-too-subtle sitcom premises: a Brooklyn family relocates to a gated community in New Jersey only to discover that all their neighbours' hail from another planet.
Tampa Bay Times TV critic Eric Deggans felt "its plot about aliens in suburbia is a tired premise done better years ago in '3rd Rock from the Sun.'" Adds Lori Rackl from the Chicago Sun-Times, "As if TV didn't have enough shows about strange people in New Jersey."
The Canadian network that bought it hasn't exactly put it in a marquee spot: CTV is airing "The Neighbours" at 10 p.m. on Saturday nights.
Not every critic hates it. Hard-to-please Lisa de Moraes of the Washington Post singled it out in Emmy Magazine as the season’s best new series, saying, "it's a swing for the fences" in an otherwise play-it-safe season.
Jami Gertz, who's been in everything from "Square Pegs" to a memorable "Seinfeld" episode (her character would not help Elaine out with some toilet paper from the next stall) is probably the best known cast member as the mother in the "normal" family. Playing her husband is Lenny Venito, a character actor recognizable for parts in "The Sopranos" and "NYPD Blue."
Venito felt a bit like an alien at the ABC press tour party last summer in Los Angeles. The buzz in the room that night was that the cast of ABC’s hit comedy "Modern Family" had all just signed lucrative deals to remain on the series.
Venito worked with one "Modern Family" cast member, Sophia Vergara, on the short-lived ABC comedy "The Knights of Prosperity."
"She's not doing too bad for herself," he observed.
As for "The Neighbors," Venito, a graduate of New York’s famous High School for the Performing Arts, seemed prepared to take the mixed early reviews in stride.
"It's a different kind of show," he says. "I don’t have high expectations, I don't have low expectations. I try to stay right in the middle."
He says he came to be part of the show thanks to creator/executive producer Dan Fogelman, who always had Venito in mind for the working class dad. Fogelman's best known in Hollywood for writing such Disney and Pixar animated family features as "Cars" and "Tangled."
"He had me read for it a couple of times to check out the chemistry between me and Jamie," says Venito. "It worked out."
Venito was asked: had there ever been an instance where he felt like a stranger living among aliens?
"Yeah — it's called Los Angeles," shot back the New York native.
People in L.A., he finds, "don’t move so fast. I guess that's to their credit — they probably live a lot longer than New Yorkers."
"The Neighbors" is mainly shot on the Disney Studios lot in Burbank, Calif., although some street scenes in the pilot were shot at an actual San Fernando Valley townhouse development next to a golf course. Venito says the people there were downright neighbourly.
"I went to some lady's house and was watching her TV set," he says. "She left to go to a Lakers game and told me to make myself at home."
Another actual townhouse resident came to the aid of Fogelman when he suddenly felt under the weather.
"She put him to bed, got a cold compress for his head and made him chicken soup," says Venito.
If only critics were so neighbourly.
Bill Brioux is a freelance TV critic based in Brampton, Ont.