Sympathy for the Devil

TBS's 'Neighbors from Hell'

Dante’s Inferno stands on its head in the mildly amusing, candy-colored series Neighbors from Hell, the first original primetime animated entertainment from the cable channel TBS. In the fourteenth-century terza rima masterpiece, a human voyaged through the infernal region, witnessing its hierarchy of torments. By contrast, in the TBS satire—which started airing in June—devil protagonists reluctantly leave hell to live undercover in suburban America. The anthropological perspective they gain on earthling behavior turns out to be just as dismaying for them as Hades was for Dante. 

South Park alum Pam Brady—who is an executive producer of Neighbors (the other is Mireille Soria, a producer of the Madagascar films)—even included a Divine Comedy allusion in the pilot, which she wrote. (You can watch Neighbors on the TBS Web site.) In that episode, the amiable fire-and-brimstone working stiff Balthazor Hellman (voiced by Will Sasso) is caught watching episodes of Two and a Half Men, and is hauled in for a dressing-down by the Prince of Darkness himself. “Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enters My Office” reads a sign over Satan’s door. 

In the hell of the gleefully meta-pop-cultural Neighbors, you see, watching TV for pleasure is forbidden: the boob tube is only to be used as an instrument of torment. “It rots the mind,” Satan (Steve Coogan) admonishes Balthazor, before admitting that surreptitious TV-watching has given the junior demon valuable knowledge about human society—just the expertise needed for a certain top-secret assignment. It turns out that an American corporation, Petromundo, is perfecting a drill so powerful it will be able to penetrate to the center of the Earth—where hell is located. Balthazor’s mission is to work undercover at the company, sabotage the drill, and save Lucifer’s stomping grounds. 

For added camouflage, Balthazor relocates with his family: his impish wife Tina (Molly Shannon); his school-age children Mandy and Josh (Tracey Fairaway and David Soren); the eccentric Uncle Vlaartark (Kyle McCulloch); and the household’s pet goblin Pazuzu (Patton Oswalt), who is forced to pose as a dog. As the clan interacts with their new acquaintances—including their cloying, bestiality-prone, racially insensitive next-door neighbor Marjoe (Dina Waters) and Petromundo’s exploitative, adulterous, racially insensitive CEO Don Killbride (Kurtwood Smith), it becomes clear that the Hellmans have far better values than the mortals do. “Family—that’s what matters,” Balthazor muses aloud, after preventing Killbride from whacking the quailing Pazuzu with a five-iron in a sadistic game of “dog golf.” 

The irony here feels a little too tidy, and the animation—with its simple shapes and lack of detail in the settings—isn’t much more interesting. As for the regular snippets of risqué and gross-out humor (the bestiality theme, a vomit sequence, Marjoe’s chatty talk about anal glands, etc.)—they seem to have been perfunctorily inserted, at regular intervals, just to give the show overtones of South Park. But some of the passing allusions in the Neighbors scripts can be droll. In an expository scene set in hell, in episode 1, Balthazor tortures a sinner by forcing him to listen to Britney Spears’s “Oops!... I Did It Again.” Later, when Balthazor tries to get Petromundo’s drill expert fired, he takes him out for a booze-heavy lunch, but it’s not just a generic bar meal: it’s tapas and “Freaky-tinis.” 

And it’s interesting to ponder the cultural antecedents of the show’s scenario. The Hellmans’ neighborhood calls to mind other malaise-ridden suburbs—from the bedroom communities in Mad Men back to The Stepford Wives. The air of virtue that clings to Balthazor, in particular, may remind comparative-literature majors of the devil’s good-guy role in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. The Dante connection has already been mentioned, and to dip into the annals of theater history: Couldn’t you say that Neighbors is, in a way, an updated medieval morality play, in chunky cartoon form? 

TBS recently scored a major coup by landing the post-NBC Conan O’Brien (the comic’s new late-night show will likely start in November). The channel also seems to have lucked out with the timing of Neighbors, which launched during the BP oil spill. The disaster added an extra bit of creepiness to the idea of Petromundo and its menacing drill. “Some things have a price that are just too darn pricey,” Balthazor asserts at one point in the show’s second episode. He’s talking about his attempt to schmooze with his boss—an effort that ends with Killbride’s gleeful walloping of Pazuzu. But the demon could have been talking about the energy-consumption habits that make Petromundo a money-minting machine. Too darn pricey indeed. 

Published in the 2010-07-16 issue: 
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Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.

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