There are many reasons to praise ABC's "The Neighbors" (8:30 p.m. Wednesday, WTAE), the broad, funny sitcom about a family that moves into a New Jersey neighborhood populated by extraterrestrials disguised as humans.
Let's start with the show's writing team led by Disney-Pixar veteran Dan Fogelman, who wrote "Cars," "Tangled" and the adult comedy "Crazy Stupid Love." "The Neighbors" also benefits from a largely unknown cast.
Jami Gertz, who stars as human mother Debbie Weaver, has been a TV mainstay for decades beginning with "Square Pegs" in the 1980s, but the rest of the cast is not well known and that benefits the show. As much as network executives love making deals with big-name stars, TV is quite good at creating stars.
That's what's happening with the cast of "The Neighbors," particularly the actors playing the alien family. British actor Simon Templeman stars as alien patriarch Larry Bird and Nigerian-born Toks Olagundoye plays his wife, Jackie Joyner-Kersee (the aliens have all adopted the names of human star athletes).
The pair make an ideal sitcom couple: he's a bull in a china shop; she attempts to nurture those around her and tries to fit in, often with hilarious results (see: the episode where Jackie uses "The Real Housewives of New Jersey" as a template for how to behave in social situations).
This week "The Neighbors" offers its first Christmas episode, which shows even aliens are not immune to a frenzy of gift opening once they learn about human Christmas customs.
Ms. Olagundoye, whose father is Nigerian and whose mother is Norwegian, grew up in Nigeria and England and attended boarding school in Europe before coming to America to attend Smith College. She intended to be a pre-law major but found she missed being in plays, something she'd done in high school.
"I very quickly realized I was not going to be able to live my life without being an actor," she said in a phone interview last month while on break from filming "The Neighbors."
Over the years she's appeared in TV shows and films but almost always in dramatic roles despite having done comedy on stage.
"My agents in New York never sent me in for comedy," she said, "and when I got to Los Angeles I didn't have anything on my resume that was comedy. So it made it difficult to get in to see casting directors for comedies."
Seeing how gifted a comedic performer she is on "The Neighbors," this is hard to imagine.
"I think it's probably because of the way I come across as a person," Ms. Olagundoye said. "Something about the way I carry myself, or maybe the accent, is very lawyer/doctor."
She did have a few comedic roles -- including in the 2005 motion picture "The Salon" -- but she said her agents "apparently didn't pay any attention to that.
"I said to my agent at the time, I'd really love for you to send me in for a sitcom [audition] and this person looked across the desk with a lot of sorrow in their eyes and said, 'Oh, darling, everybody thinks they're funny.' And that was that," Ms. Olagundoye said. She has a new agent now but holds nothing against her old agent, saying, "I love that person dearly and they did a lot for me and will always be dear to my heart. They did not listen to me on that at the time and I thought, what did I know?"
Now she knows better.
Ms. Olagundoye found the "Neighbors" script clever and quirky and expressed gratitude that the show's casting director gave her a shot. In her first audition she used what she called "a Bernadette Peters voice" and the casting director looked at her and said, "You're very strange and I like you but I don't like the accent. I want the British accent."
Ms. Olagundoye, with her travels through different cultures, shares at least one trait with her "Neighbors" character: Both have been fish out of water.
"Simon's British and we talk about it all the time," she said. "Thanksgiving, the mall, American schools, they're all things the aliens are figuring out about and I had to do the same thing. So I do relate to it. But very much like Jackie is enjoying it and would like to stay, I love it here and I love learning the different little things and incorporating them into my own life. You can do that here and stick with your own thing and culture and that's just accepted. That's not something you can get away with any place else. I appreciate that very much about this country."
And she's appreciating her role as a wacky, alien suburban mom, too.
"I have so much fun with this job," Ms. Olagundoye said. "I cannot believe I get paid to have this much fun."tvradio
Rob Owen writes this Sunday TV column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook. First Published December 2, 2012 5:00 AM