Spring is typically associated with rebirth and new beginnings – flowers bloom, the sun becomes more ubiquitous, and life seems to go a teensy bit faster than it did during the colder months. While it can be a time of renewed sense of purpose for those whose ambition and mood became dormant when enveloped by the cold, spring is also synonymous with panic among television fans, as it’s when decisions are made for next season and the lives of many a series are cut far too short. The weeks and months leading up to May upfronts, especially, are tense for those who grow attached to lower-rated fare; you never know what the network is thinking regarding renewal and even if you grow pessimistic about the chances of your show, it’s hard not to feel helpless as you watch numbers get lower and the chances of another season of something you love grow dimmer.
But thankfully, not all lower-rated series get cancelled these days, not when broadcast ratings are down across the board and other factors come into play that can offset underwhelming live or DVR numbers. One such series that I’d argue deserves a reprieve from the cancellation gods is The Neighbors, ABC’s suburban alien comedy created by Dan Fogelman (Last Vegas). After premiering to vicious reviews in the fall of 2012, this sweet little quirk monster of a series managed to hone and find its voice, growing into its weirdness, leaning into its offbeat nature, and becoming the best comedy on network television in the process. While quality and a unique viewpoint aren’t enough to grab a renewal, especially when an already modestly rated series gets shifted to Fridays with an incompatible lead-in and insufficient promotion, there are reasons for ABC to go ahead with additional seasons of The Neighbors.
Of the 10 comedies ABC has aired during the 2013-2014 season, the network owns the rights to four: Mixology, Super Fun Night, Trophy Wife, and The Neighbors. The first is currently retaining less than 50% of its Modern Family lead-in, meaning that it’s playing out the string rather than vying for a slot on next season’s schedule; the second ended its run earlier this year, having garnered a limited back order that typically means cancellation when it comes to poorly-rated freshmen series; and the third is doing worse L+SD ratings than The Neighbors on a more viewed night and with a stronger lead-in. The first three are all freshmen series and headed toward cancellation, so ABC is facing the possibility of having no in-house veteran comedy on its schedule next season, meaning that they’d be four seasons away from receiving syndication money from any ABC-owned comedies that premiere in the fall. While the low ratings that The Neighbors has garnered likely mean that it won’t have a lucrative syndication deal, why would a network, which has already cut costs on an already modestly budgeted series, pass up the opportunity to make something off the show, particularly when there are networks under its same umbrella (ABC Family, Disney) that would make a solid home for the little alien comedy that could?
Networks are not in a position to pass up that type of opportunity and there is precedent in ABC Studios doing what it can to get an in-house comedy with a small-but-loyal audience into the world of syndication with Cougar Town, which was cut from the network after 61 episodes and three seasons. That series would up on TBS, where it’s in the middle of its fifth season and barreling toward 100 episodes; that series was also averaging less of the network’s average than The Neighbors currently is (55% vs. 57%) and found itself wedged behind a comedy that it didn’t share an audience with, a move that led to its cancellation. ABC simply cannot keep putting cult comedies in this same situation, as they’re cutting into their own pocketbooks and placing the needs of outside projects ahead of the well-being of their own material. As such, it’s the right thing to do, both for this specific show and the network as a whole, to renew The Neighbors and alter a destructive pattern of behavior that has weakened the ABC comedy brand.
2. Scheduling Stability
Barring any unforeseen developments between now and May, ABC has four comedies that are guaranteed a spot on the 2014 fall schedule: Modern Family, The Middle, Last Man Standing, and The Goldbergs. A fifth, Suburgatory, is within 31 episodes of syndication after having its first truncated season this year, but it’s put up ratings that have given it a solid chance at coming back next season. Should the network decide to put it on in the fall, as well, seeing as how they like the idea of a Tuesday block and would need an anchor should The Goldbergs move to Wednesdays, it’s going to need a show to replace one of the failed rookie comedies that will be launched alongside the veterans. ABC had a rough time launching three new comedies this past fall and four of its five new 2013-2014 comedies have disappointed in some form or fashion, so instead of having to spread their resources and again attempt to premiere three comedies in as many nights, or instead of having to air episodes of comedies that are truly the walking dead, how about making The Neighbors the first option off the bench? It’s not going to light the world on fire with its ratings, but it has a core demo audience of 0.9-1.1 that followed it to Fridays and a semi-compatible lead-in (Suburgatory, The Middle) would be enough to get it back to the acceptable 1.4-1.6 range it ended its first season in.
Even if ABC doesn’t want to use The Neighbors as a first up midseason replacement, or as a lead-out for a Tuesday Suburgatory lead-off that will allow a compatible comedy to air behind Last Man Standing, the show could serve other purposes for the network while padding its episode count. For instance, ABC lost any fall momentum it had when the likes of Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy went on midseason hiatus and The Assets, Killer Women, and The Taste failed to hold up the schedule, resulting in a rather bleak early part of the year. Instead of plugging in forgettable filler programming that there’s no investment in, why not use The Neighbors as a bridge between fall and midseason? The network has used comedy this way before (the Scrubs/Better Off Ted pairing of 2010); the show would get to make its episodes without causing too much damage to the rest of the schedule, especially if ABC lets it sub in for something that doesn’t repeat well; and they’d have a known property that has outrated episodes of nearly every member of its freshman drama class: Lucky 7, Betrayal, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, Killer Women, Mind Games, and The Assets. Although the drama situation at ABC is bound to improve next season from the depths it reached this season, they can’t guarantee that they’ll have a whole fleet of Scandals coming to save the day and there’s always the possibility that what they attempt to launch next midseason will fall below the audience The Neighbors currently has.
The Neighbors is the best comedy on network television. Period, full-stop. Not best on its night, best on its network, or best in its genre; this show is the best comedy on network television, which is why I’m so emotionally invested in its fate. At a time when networks are afraid to take risks with their programming, The Neighbors found a way to give a traditional format (the fish-out-of-water family comedy) a twist (aliens) that added to its appeal rather than playing as something gimmicky, becoming a refreshing pocket of air on the ABC schedule that served as a reminder of the power of television. TV is more than what we’ve already known and what we’ve already been told; the reason I became such a fan of the medium is what it’s capable of doing, the boundaries that can and should be pushed by the foremost forward thinkers out there. A renewal of The Neighbors is vindication for all those who consider themselves a little left-of-center, all those who think that their latest idea might be too out there, all those who dream big and spend their time with the heads in the cloud. It’s an indication that a more segmented television world does not mean that broadcast networks have to dumb down their content in order to reach a wider audience, that creativity and a strong vision are ideals still being held in a high regard by those who find their world shrinking by the day.
The Neighbors is a show that manages to blend caffeinated zaniness, grounded emotion, a steady stream of pop culture references, and modern day interpretations of classic sitcom plots, all filtered through the enviable chemistry between its cast, particularly when the action is centered around Toks Olagundoye’s sprightly Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Simon Templeman’s proud Larry Bird. Featuring some of the strongest child acting on television (namely, Ian Patrick’s dead-panned Dick Butkus) and showing signs of being willing to experiment with the sitcom format (numerous fourth wall breaks, musical episodes), this is a show that has grown by the episode and become more self-assured as a result, its writing of the human couple (Lenny Venito and Jami Gertz) improving in season two and its ability to find the poignancy and romance in everyday life (making a burrito, four-way intersections) all the more impressive. As otherworldly as its premise may make it seem, The Neighbors is as in touch with what it means to be human as any other comedy on television and that’s something that shouldn’t go away, not before the story of the Bird-Kersees and the Weavers comes to a natural end.
At ABC’s 2014 Winter TCA press conference, ABC President Paul Lee admitted that the problem with The Neighbors wasn’t its creative side; it was that the show was harder to get sampled, yet the people who gave it a chance ended up falling for it and becoming passionate defenders of its honor. The show just hasn’t had the opportunity to win over enough people, as it’s had to overcome a start plagued by bad reviews and an early first season finale, as well as a second season on a lower-rated night with a tonally incompatible lead-in, little to no promotion, and an early season finale. In order to give The Neighbors a shot to prove to people that it transcends what could have been a one-note series that hinged on a flimsy gimmick, ABC must renew the series and stand behind it even in the face of lower ratings. This is never going to be a show that will appeal to everybody, seeing as how the premise is alienating to a certain segment of viewers, and this is never going to be the cool show to like, the series that garners headlines on industry tastemaker websites. However, it’s a show that could prove to be an asset for ABC, if not in terms of its role on the schedule then the signal its renewal would send to the creative community and every fan of a little show that’s left to twist in the wind for the final weeks of the television season. Simply, it’s a show that deserves a chance, so please, ABC, renew The Neighbors.