The Neighbors at TCAs: A "High-Concept Idea" in a Family Sitcom

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Hi everyone! Today I'm pretending to be a real journalist and sitting in on ABC's sessions at the Television Critics' Association press tour in Los Angeles. Here's what I saw and heard at this morning's The Neighbors panel.

One of the weirder shows ABC unveiled during Upfronts back in May was The Neighbors, a single-camera sitcom about a New Jersey family that moves into a creepily uniform gated community inhabited by incognito aliens. When it comes to the show's broad absurdist humor your mileage may vary, but based on the pilot, The Neighbors has a lot going for it: a zippy sensibility, more than a few big laughs, and the advantage of being truly distinctive among an otherwise underwhelming new crop of network sitcoms. But the one thing Creator and Excutive Producer Dan Fogelman wants you to know is, it's all about family.

"[The Neighbors] is a high-concept idea, but we want to ground it as a family sitcom. We have all the family relationships represented." But in addition to pointing a lens at modern families, Fogelman hopes to insert a touch of social commentary as well: "In later episodes the aliens go out into the world a little bit. In one episode they go to a shopping mall for the first time and they're horrified by our culture."

But don't worry, The Neighbors isn't setting out to become biting satire. "It's about my dysfunctional New Jersey family, basically." Inspired by his mother's overly manufactured neighborhood, Fogelman claims the alien angle wasn't exactly a stretch. But don't expect heavy or creepy sci-fi. This is strictly a family show. "I want this to be a show an entire family could watch together. It's very contemporary in its humor, but the hope of the show is that it's timeless."

Star Jami Gertz agreed about The Neighbors' potential for examining the human condition: "What is normal? Who is normal in society? What is normal human behavior? And when you have people coming from other countries—in this case other galaxies—coming to America, you get to explore our own behavior. What do we do that looks silly to others?"

Apparently there were initially some concerns that the aliens were too scary-looking. In the pilot they're revealed as a rather benevolent variation on the little green man mythos, but their original design looked slightly more sinister. "Like when their eyes were black, that was too scary," says Executive Producer Chris Koch. Fogelman elaborated, "We had massive, massive conversations about the color of the aliens' eyeballs."

Probably the best recurring joke of the pilot is that all the aliens have taken the names of famous athletes (i.e, Jackie Joyner Kersee and her son, Reggie Jackson). But apparently producers needed to get permission from dozens of real-life public figures, and Fogelman describes the process as being full of surprises. "[The sports stars] are really actually responding to it well, they think it's cool to have an alien named after them." But last-minute rewrites have been necessary after a few athletes or estates declined. "A few have said no." Fogelman elaborates, "Dead athletes are harder to get approval for." For example, lead alien Larry Bird was originally Wilt Chamberlain.

The TCA panel took at turn for the awkward when a press member grilled young cast member Clara Mamet about her famous father David, and whether the nepotism charges levied against her sister Zosia Mamet for Girls were accurate in Clara's experience as well. "My sister is incredibly talented. I don't think she should be judged based on her family," Clara answered like a good sport. But she did drop this little tidbit about her famously exacting playwright father: "My dad actually watched the pilot and said the great thing about the central gag is that alien or human, everybody has the same problems." There you have it. The Neighbors is David Mamet-approved!

For her part, Gertz seemed pretty stoked to be part of such a fun, breezy comedy. "There's a lot of tough things to see on TV today, it's pretty rough out there," she explained. "If we have put a smile on your face then we've done our job. We're trying to entertain and make people laugh, and we need a lot more of that."

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