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Toks Olagundoye, left, and Simon Templeman in a scene from The Neighbors. Ron Tom / ABC
Toks Olagundoye, left, and Simon Templeman in a scene from The Neighbors. Ron Tom / ABC

In Neighbors, the humour is out there

In the new sci-fi sitcom The Neighbors, the only human family in a gated New Jersey community discovers that all their neighbours are extraterrestrials.

Weird neighbours are nothing new, but when they all speak in theatrical British accents, are all named after famous athletes, "nourish" their bodies by reading books and "cry" green goo out their ears when they're sad, one has to wonder about their origins.

This is the mystery faced by Marty Weaver (Lenny Venito) when he moves his wife Debbie (Jami Gertz) and their three kids to Hidden Hills, New Jersey, a gated community complete with its own golf course. Weaver believes their new home will be a dream come true - until they meet the neighbours, led by Larry Bird (Simon Templeman) and his wife, Jackie Joyner-Kersee (Toks Olagundoye) and their two sons, Dick Butkus and Reggie Jackson.

Welcome to television's freshest sci-fi sitcom, The Neighbors, which definitely thinks outside the comedy box with zippy pacing, big laughs and absurdist humour. In fact, the series' creator Dan Fogelman - the inventive mind behind Cars, Tangled and Crazy, Stupid, Love - is clearly thinking outside the galaxy on this one as he shows that dysfunctional families can hail from anywhere in the cosmos.

In the fun spirit of previously popular sci-fi sitcoms such as ALF, My Favorite Martian, Mork & Mindy and 3rd Rock from the Sun, Fogelman tones down the creepy aspects of the extraterrestrials - no chrome fangs or acid blood here - as he renders them harmless but highly amusing and eccentric, to spin a family-friendly 30 minutes.

"Like when their eyes were black, that was too scary," says the co-executive producer Chris Koch of the alien-design process. Fogelman adds: "We had massive, massive conversations about the colour of the aliens' eyeballs."

When the aliens finally do reveal their true appearance to the Weavers by clapping their hands over their heads, they look almost cute, in a vegan-appetising way, like deep-dish-eyed chameleons assembled out of celery and cabbage.

"I want this to be a show an entire family could watch together," says Fogelman. "It's very contemporary in its humour, but the hope of the show is that it's timeless."

It should come as no surprise that, metaphorically, the aliens act as a lens to let us see ourselves in all our foolish homo sapiens glory - for better or for worse.

"What is normal? Who is normal in society?" asks co-star Gertz. "What is normal human behaviour? And when you have people coming from other countries - in this case other galaxies - coming to America, you get to explore our own behaviour. What do we do that looks silly to others?"

As head of the extraterrestrials, Larry finally confesses to the Weavers that the entire Hidden Hills community comprises of aliens from the planet Zabvron who have been holed up there for a decade, awaiting instructions from home. As it turns out, the Weavers are the first humans who have ever lived among the Zabvronians.

One of the recurring jokes is how the aliens all bear the names of celebrated athletes and Fogelman had to legally secure permission in each instance from their real-life counterparts. Most athletes, however, were game for the idea and flattered.

"They think it's cool to have an alien named after them," says Fogelman, but "a few have said no". For example, alien leader Larry Bird was originally named for the late basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain, but his estate rejected the idea. "Dead athletes are harder to get approval for."

While tonight's pilot beams down some great belly laughs and smart comic moments, it will be interesting to see if the producers and writers for The Neighbors can keep the gag going at warp speed. That may take some genuine extraterrestrial intelligence to pull off.

The Neighbors will be broadcast at 6pm tonight on OSN Comedy

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