Copy-and-pasted from last week's column, but it's relevant and bears repeating: The new season is upon us, so it's time to start looking at the pilots that made it to series at the broadcast networks. I'm always excited to see the new line-ups at the start of the fall, even though I know that pilots can be a mixed bag. Good starts can end up feeling like wasted time when the show goes to series, while mediocre introductions sometimes yield tremendous programs in the long run. My intent this year is to stay on top of all the shows that I review in this space during the next few weeks; I'm planning midseason re-reviews around the sixth episode of each. That way, I'll have a chance to see if the storylines and characters have developed, or if the show is merely marking time (or worse, wasting away).
This week, a duo of new comedies -- ABC brings America a wacky culture clash, while NBC gives Matthew Perry another post-"Friends" shot.
The new ABC Wednesday night entry "The Neighbors" is a mysterious beast. Yeah, it's clearly a single-camera family sitcom, but it's also one of the more out-there pitches to make it to air in recent years. Give ABC credit for not trying to play it ultra-safe and commission 50 "Modern Family" simulacrums (Simulacra? Simulacri?), 'cause goodness knows that's gotta be an awfully tempting proposition (and one they've already taken, and will take again), but that doesn't make the network's decision to bet on "The Neighbors" any less of a noggin-scratcher.
The concept is a doozy; a colony of peaceful extraterrestrials from a distant planet came to Earth at the turn of the 21st century and took up residence in a planned golf community in New Jersey. After ten years, one pair of the aliens decided to sell their house and move away, leaving their dwelling open. And in moved the humans, a family of five (dad, mom, older teenage daughter, middle son, little girl) looking for a little peace and quiet.
The aliens are friendly, if more than a little clueless -- they ride around their community on golf carts, they all bring lattice-top cherry pies as housewarming gifts, they wash their spacecraft right in the middle of the street. (Yep, that sight gag happens.) In other words, they have taken on the appearance of Earthlings, but they still have a long way to go before they understand human behavior. But they're not alone: So do the humans, at least based on the pilot.
The moment that proves this is when youngest alien Dick Butkus (they've all adopted the names of famous sports figures as their own -- those wacky aliens), dared to show the human family's youngest pair a trick, reveals his true form. This leads the entire group to do the same thing, right in the human family's living room. The family is understandably shocked and terrified. So why doesn't the family doesn't just run for the hills the moment this happens? Easy. This is a broad, silly sitcom, don'cha know, and in broad, silly sitcoms, people don't know how to act like people; they're merely living, speaking props for the camera to film.
Maybe this one will get better over time. Maybe the writing -- Dan Fogelman, whose credits include the feature films "Cars," "Crazy, Stupid, Love." and "Tangled," created the show -- will take it in odd, crazy, creative directions. Maybe the characters will grow and change and build to become more identifiable and real.
But I'm not betting on any of that, since I don't see it running past my scheduled sixth episode check-in, if it gets there at all. Pilot only: One and a half stars (out of four).
You may have already watched the new Matthew Perry sitcom "Go On." NBC previewed it during their hugely rated coverage of this year's Summer Olympics, making it a centerpiece of their attempts to raise the wreckage that is their primetime line-up. And why not -- Perry was part of the glory days, when NBC's Must See TV ruled the airwaves. "Go On" brings him back to his old NBC stomping grounds, along with a former writer-producer of "Friends," Scott Silveri, who is credited with writing the pilot episode.
But "Go On" doesn't have the light, easy-going spirit that "Friends," at its best, had. This is a dark comedy about Life and Death and Sadness and Loneliness, and unfortunately, it's not a very funny one.
Perry plays Ryan King, a sports talk radio host whose wife has recently died. He wants to get back to work, but his boss (John Cho) orders him to attend group therapy sessions before he can re-take his seat behind the microphone. King reluctantly agrees, finding himself at a community center, surrounded by a mostly-stock group of misfits, all with different degrees of damage and some truly unfunny personal tics. Since the bulk of the members of the therapy group seem like unfinished character sketches from an improv exercise, it's hard to work up any enthusiasm for or about them. (I say "bulk" because a couple of them -- a mourning lesbian played by Julie White and an elderly blind man portrayed by Bill Cobbs -- actually manage to build characters we can really care about.)
The show's biggest flaw is that it tries to give equal weight to King's professional life and his therapy experiences. There's no doubt that a very funny, very relatable show could be made with some of the ingredients here, but because there's no dominant focus, it ends up feeling busy and overstuffed, with too many undeveloped characters at the edges of the screen.
I said last year when I reviewed his previous post-"Friends" sitcom "Mr. Sunshine" that I liked Perry, and I still do. I think his recent efforts are ambitious, to say the least. But the pilot for "Go On" simply doesn't work. Pilot only: Two stars.
"The Neighbors" premieres Wednesday, Sept. 26, at 8:30 p.m. on ABC.
"Go On" airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on NBC.
Content advisory: "The Neighbors" and "Go On" are both rated TV-PG. "The Neighbors" contains a few double-entendres and some alien ooziness. "Go On" deals with some adult themes, particularly death; there is also some mild cursing (but zero ooziness, alien or otherwise).