When Family Guy first debuted, there was this sense among viewers that the show was basically a Simpsons rip-off. Let’s see: husband’s a fat slob married to an attractive wife. He has three kids: a boy, a girl, and a baby. They live in a town full of weird eccentrics. The Simpsons itself poked fun at the whole thing. In one episode featuring a whole bunch of Homer clones. One of them was Peter Griffin.
Seth MacFarlane himself has not been shy about the show’s Simpson’s influences. In an interview at SXSW, he mentioned that the Family Guy cutaway gags were inspired by similar gags in The Simpsons. He specifically cited the “Land of Chocolate” joke from when the German investors took over the nuclear power plant.
It took a while for Family Guy to find its footing. The show ran for three seasons for Fox and was cancelled. Then it went into reruns on Adult Swim, which revitalized the show. The reruns picked up new fans, and DVD sales were strong. Three years after it had been cancelled, Family Guy was miraculously and triumphantly back on Fox with all new episodes. Eventually things would come full circle when, in 2014, Family Guy did a crossover episode with The Simpsons in season 13.
And it was the best one!
The show had cracked the code that had eluded creators for so long. How in the world do you make a primetime animated hit that could be as huge as The Simpsons? The solution was deceptively simple: you basically make The Simpsons. Now, though, there was a new question: how do you make a show as big as Family Guy?
You basically make Family Guy.
Many would turn to Seth Macfarlane again to see if they could catch that lightning in a bottle. One show decided to cross the streams and turn to an unholy combination of South Park and DreamWorks Animation. It would air on TBS, which, at the time, was probably airing Family Guy for half its air time already.
In the far distant past of 2010, the world was introduced to the Neighbors From Hell.
I mean, just look at the characters.
The lead character and paterfamilias is Balthazor Hellman, a large man voiced by Will Sasso. While I think Sasso is just using his regular voice, he sounds almost exactly like Seth McFarlane’s Peter Griffin. What a specific choice for the voice casting director! Molly Shannon plays his long-suffering wife Tina, who, like her female predecessors Marge and Lois, doesn’t seem to have a career outside of homemaker. They have two kids: a dim-witted boy (Josh) and a sarcastic teen girl (Mandy). There’s no baby, though. Instead, the role of effete observer goes to the uncle, Vlaartark. He’s voiced by animation veteran Kyle McCulloch (South Park, Spongebob Squarepants) doing what sounds like a Stewie impression.
Oh, and there’s a talking dog, too… just in case you missed the whole “this show is a rip-off of the Family Guy” thing. This one is voiced by Patton Oswalt doing a completely unrecognizable voice. His vocal affectation is closer to Jimmie Walker than Remy the Rat.
Normally, I would not even bother for a show that’s a Family Guy-alike, but this show has a hook that I couldn’t ignore.
It’s a family of demons. And I was like, sign me the hell up.
The Simpsons and Family Guy have universally understood premises. Hence, you don’t need the opening song to explain much… other than Seth McFarlane’s love of showtunes. Neighbors From Hell needs some explaining. Every show starts with an intro sequence that goes into the nuts and bolts. The song is terrible, though, so I won’t be linking it. Balthazor is a blue collar torturer in Hell. It’s a living! Just to remind you what time this is set in, the first torture we see him commit is to force someone to listen to Britney Spears. OMG, so topical! In 2010! (Spears had her public meltdown about two years prior, so in hindsight it seems a little mean.) *NSYNC, more like *NSTYNC, amirite! To wind down, he sits down in front of a TV, which, it turns out, is illegal in Hell.
Satan (voiced by Steve Coogin) catches him and calls him into his office where he drops a punishment and a promotion. Satan thinks that Balthazor’s TV habit makes him uniquely suited to fit in with the human world. He’s also heard of a plan one corporation has to construct a Big Drill, which may cause havoc if it ever reaches the Center of the Earth where Hell is located. Bathazor will now have to move his family up to the surface, and he can’t return to Hell until he’s sabotaged the drill. They’re, like, the demonic equivalent of The Americans. (Which would debut three years later. Which, like this show, also had DreamWorks and Fox Television involvement. Ooooh, I’m keeping my eye on you, Joe Weisberg.)
The family soon finds out that Earth is a terrible place to live. They can’t install a lava moat around their house like they did back in the home country. But even worse… Earth is full of horrible racists, shallow and annoying neighbors, and corporate monsters who will endanger the lives of innocent people if it means making a few million dollars.
…. Guilty as charged, Pam Brady.
Pam Brady, the show’s creator, is a long time producer of South Park and is credited with writing two episodes (from Season 1 & 2). She is also the only credited writer for South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut who isn’t named Trey Stone or Matt Parker. If you remember, that film featured a begraggled Satan who is generally less evil and more misunderstood.
Animation was handled by DreamWorks. it’s a strange anomaly, wedged in there between family-friendly movie spin-offs like The Penguins of Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda: The Legend of Awesomeness, DreamWorks Dragons, and Monsters Vs. Aliens. To be fair, DreamWorks was still trying to figure itself out. After all, DreamWorks had only a short time ago ended its distribution deal with Aardman Productions. Remember a time when one of DreamWorks Animation’s earliest hits was Chicken Run? Pepperidge Farm remembers.
Visually, the show’s DNA probably comes from the three studios that share co-production credits: Wounded Poodle, Bento Box Entertainment (which would reach its greatest success with Bob’s Burgers), and 20th Century Fox Television (who, as I have mentioned, has experience with this genre).
There is that DreamWorks ethos, though, that’s been baked into the studio since the days of Shrek. There’s the sense of sly scarcasm, emanating from that infamous DreamWorks smirk, that although you’re a blue-collar grunt you’ve still got an upper hand on all the phonies of the world. Our Hellmans might not always come out on top, but they have the moral upper hand. And they’re demons, so it’s, like, ironic! The other weirdly DreamWorks thing is that while it’s playing in Family Guy‘s playground and has the producer of South Park as its creator, the show feels oddly less transgressive and more squeaky clean.
Among the ground rules for their life on Earth: they have to fit in. That means no using their powers, which include demonic possession, life and death magic, mind control, and heightened speed and agility. The dog is not allowed to talk except in private. This rule is broken quite often. They’re allowed to keep their green skin, though, which their racist neighbors assume to mean that they’re Persian, Jewish, or Mexican. Secondly, they are not allowed to take a life. Balthazor’s role was as a torturer, and thus judging guilt or innocence is way out of his jurisdiction. They also must report to Satan at the end of every day, who is often quite flummoxed that they’ve wasted yet another episode failing to destroy the Big Drill.
The people that the Hellmans meet are all various levels of obnoxious. Their next door neighbor, Marjoe, is that manic chipper neighbor who always wants to talk but inevitably turns the conversation to herself. Also, she loves to fart on her dog, which is yet another South Park-ian touch. Tina wants to strangle her in the first episode, which is relatable.
As the show goes on, though, Marjoe keeps popping up in weird places — as a caterer at a fancy country club or as a one-man blues band, for example. By this time, we’ve encountered a litany of terrible people, such as… um, let’s spin the wheel of edginess here … a feminist EPA representative voiced by Jane Lynch who doesn’t believe in cleaning up the environment and is perfectly willing to sell marshland to the evil corporation for a chance to sleep with Balthazor Hellman. Man, compared to her, Marjoe is just an eccentric entrepreneur just trying to get by in life! You go, Marjoe! Fart on that dog!
Then there’s Don Killbride, Balthazor’s boss at Petromundo. He is voiced by Kurtwood Smith. Smith knows how to play a scary man — whether menacing RoboCop, berating his children in the ’70’s, or brokering a peace accord between the Federation and the Klingons. He is the worst boss. Most frightening is that he’s only barely a parody of scary bosses. A lot about Don Killbride feels familiar… like we’ve worked for him. He promotes and demotes Balthazor on a whim, has no problems with causing cruelty, and is happy making other people miserable. He’s so evil even Satan wants to steer clear of him. The episode usually ends with Balthazor opting to do something good, but the good deed turns around as an ironic benefit for Killbride. Balthazor then gets to keep his job and is promoted to another department… typically one that doesn’t involve regular contact with The Big Drill.
Family Guy isn’t the only show this reminds me of. (And yes, this show is self-aware enough to name-check Family Guy itself.) Practitioners of the dark arts living among the normals? It’s a well of creativity that many shows are founded on. This show, though, reminds me a lot a pair of competing 60’s live action shows. Our family is basically a standard nuclear family that looks like monsters a la The Munsters. Meanwhile, Balthazor and Tina are affectionate to a ridiculous degree like Gomez and Morticia from The Addams Family. And they also eat cats. So…. Alf. (Alf gets referenced in the very first episode. He’s back… in HELL form!)
Watching Neighbors From Hell is like opening up a time capsule to a past that is only ten years ago but feels like ages. There’s a joke that Sarah Palin is an evil robot android. The goblin dog is getting ready for a Lady Gaga concert. Windows 7. Joan and Melissa Rivers. And Katie Couric gets roasted for some reason. Remember when we all hated Katie Couric? Pepperidge Farm remembers.
Anyway, despite being basically the squeaky clean family on the block, the Hellmans do their best to fit in. With each episode, they run a greater and greater risk of becoming assimilated into society. Bathazor meets a fellow immigrant friend at work, and he starts wanting to please Killbride more than he wants to please Satan. Josh and Mandy find human love interests. The libertine Vlaartark finds a lot to like in the carnal pleasures on Earth. Concerned relatives drop by and gasp in horror at how well the kids have taken to cellphones and baseball. By the time the last episode rolls around, you get the sense that maybe this family doesn’t necessarily want to go back to Hell. Is this nice family of demons going to be corrupted by the horrors of Earth?
The show was not long for this world. It only ran for 10 episodes over the span of two months in 2010 on TBS. There would be no Adult Swim to step in and save them this time. I’m guessing that they was already too many “Hell” based programming. (I get this confused with Lucy, The Daughter or the Devil, which aired in 2005 and was created by… Loren Bouchard of Bob’s Burgers? OK… this one might have made its way onto my potential review list.) Meanwhile, DreamWorks was going all in to the DreamWorks face of its own devising. It’s improved recently, though. DreamWorks is responsible for critical hits like Voltron: Legendary Defender and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.
Most of the reviews at the time found Neighbors From Hell mediocre, but sometimes mediocre is good. You don’t need to always be trying to out-do the title holder for raunchy humor. Sometimes settling down to a normal suburban life is just fine. I liked the character designs, the set up, and the goofy humor. Plus, I though all the voice acting was strong. I mean…. you really can’t go wrong with Kurtwood Smith in any case, but Will Sasso has a naturally cartoony voice. (He recently voiced Maxie Zeus on the Harley Quinn show.) Would we have gotten a Season 2 where Killbride conquers Hell and punishes the innocent? Would Satan have to move in with the Hellmans?
Alas, Neighbors From Hell was destined to be buried in the depths of Gehenna from which it came. No crossover with The Simpsons for you.
And now… the most unnecessary product tie-in ever! A Neighbors From Hell limited edition Webber Grill!
Stop trying to make “SNORFIN” happen.
Check out all the previous classic animation reviews under the tag #MADE ANIMATED!
Episodes watched: “Snorfindesdrillsalgoho” (dammit, episode writers), “Country Club Hell”, “Gay Vampire Mexican”, “Screw the EPA”, “Family From Hell”, “Guns for Mutts”, “Fantastic 15”.