Ridiculous headline? Perhaps. Modern Family is beloved by the Emmys and starting to be beloved by syndication. The Neighbors was a show seemingly doomed from the start — aliens in suburbia, with the most famous person being Jami Gertz — that is likely to get cancelled (if it doesn’t get cancelled, they might need a Full House tie-in for Season 3). Scott Weinger, who played Steve on Full House, actually wrote a couple of episodes of The Neighbors (as well as some episodes of 90210). Odd.
So yes, Modern Family is a darling and The Neighbors is a flop. That’s the conventional narrative. In reality, they’re not so different — and in fact, The Neighbors got better as it evolved, which isn’t exactly what Modern Family has been doing.
Start with the primary matriarch: Julie Bowen vs. Jami Gertz. Both play them as frazzled lushes with family-first hearts of gold. Bowen probably does it better — she has more to play off in terms of her much-younger stepmother and TV veteran Ed O’Neill as her dad — but Gertz broke through this season, as noted in this review:
When she rallies Larry to take charge, reminding him that, “There’ll always be other Harvards and genetically altering pills and scary male pregnancies and DJ Jazzy Jeffs,” Gertz’s inner monologue interrupts and deservedly observes, “The things that have come out of my mouth this season.”
That’s one thing The Neighbors did in Season 2: they completely shredded the fourth wall (Modern Family does that in the sense that there’s often shots of characters giving interviews). In some ways, The Neighbors turned the back-half of this season into knowing they were going to be cancelled and making jokes out of it — in the season finale, when they talk about what’s next, one of the alien children says “I’ve heard rumors of ABC Family?” to which the alien patriarch is like, “Good Lord no.” That stuff is tremendous.
On the human side, there’s Lenny Venito as the dad (Jami Gertz’s husband), who might actually be better than some of the primary male Modern Family characters. This, too, was noted by AV Club:
Venito might second the notion. The part of Marty is so much richer and loonier now than the thankless blue-collar patriarch we first met. He’s a romantic and a neurotic, a man’s man who jumps at the chance to be a giddy little boy and owns his insecurities (in this sense, he’s sort of an evolved version of Mod Fam’s Jay).
I’ve seen the kids on Modern Family kind of run in place the last few years; the Vegas episode didn’t even include them at all. Manny and Luke are off being at odds but being buddies; Haley is trying to figure out what to do with her life (and is likely about to end up with Adam from Workaholics, playing totally against type for fans of that show); and there’s been a couple of arcs about Alex, but nothing major. Meanwhile, the younger characters on The Neighbors evolved pretty quickly — Clara Mamet (yea, the real-life sister of Shosh on Girls) was basically a moody teen for most of Season 1, but then her role become more nuanced when she had a relationship with one of the alien teenagers. In the season (series) finale, she gave him the book Everybody Poops to explain the intricacies of being human. Then there’s Dick Butkus (the youngest alien), and specifically this clip:
Then they did an entire Bollywood episode (written by the kid from Full House!), which you can see a strong clip of here.
I found The Neighbors because I was bored one day and just started punching things on Hulu Plus — admittedly, at first it sucked and the concept wasn’t great. But as I skipped a few episodes and got into Season 2 and the writing got sharper and the fourth wall came down and they poked fun at themselves and actually gave arcs to all the characters (rare on TV these days), I started to like it. (This is why I think every show should park themselves on Hulu or Amazon or Netflix; you never know what it will do for your audience after the fact.) The Neighbors likely won’t be back — and Modern Family can probably stay on for as long as it wants — so this entire thing may be a moot point, but it was a good show with similar characters as to “the brand” in sitcoms right now (unless you believe that to be Big Bang Theory) and better arcs as they evolved.
Some in the media feel the same as I do (note that The AV Club, above, gave the season finale an A), such as The Seattle Times:
It’s pretty silly stuff (the aliens take the names of sports figures), but the more-than-capable cast (Jami Gertz, Lenny Venito, Simon Templeman) can make the most ridiculous plots believable. Let’s hope ABC gives this well-written comedy a renewal for another season.
ABC’s aliens-on-earth comedy hits its season and possible series finale Friday. If it dies, let this be its epitaph: It was frequently better than the concept may have led you to expect, and never as bad as the worst of the early reviews may have led you to think.
Look, if you green-light a show about aliens living in a gated New Jersey community and park it on Friday evenings, it’s probably going to be hard for people to connect with. If, on the other hand, you create a show with a gay couple, a hot Latina and some people with recognizable faces and put it on mid-week, that’s a little bit easier for America to (a) find and (b) grasp. So some of it is context, even if The Neighbors did have funny moments.