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Confounding conformity with aliens and serial killers

Some people like to write me letters and e-mails to tell me that television is merely an instrument to manipulate the masses and ensure conformity. Always has been, always will be. The medium and everything that emanates from it is, as some see it, a vast corporate conspiracy to deny the public any independence of judgment.

Right on, I say. Stick to your guns on that one and traipse through life in blissful ignorance of what you're missing.

The Neighbors (ABC, 9:30 p.m.) debuts tonight and is one those odd little shows that mocks conformity, often conformity-as-seen-on-TV. The sitcom milks conventionality for laughs and, in fact, savages orthodoxy. It's no masterpiece, but it's a sharply written piece of drollery that offers a jolt of recognition.

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You wouldn't think there was much to it from a synopsis. This ordinary palooka, Marty (Lenny Venito), wants to please his wife, Debbie (Jami Gertz), and make a good life for their three kids. So he moves the family from a crowded New York apartment to Hidden Hills, N.J., a gated community that, Marty notes with pleasure, has its own golf course.

This is Marty's dream home, bought at a bargain price. Sweet suburban living for the folks and their kids. So they meet the neighbours, who, it turns out, are aliens from the planet Zabvron.

They moved en masse to the burb years ago, appear to have been abandoned by their home planet, and the only reason Mary and his missus got the house is that one alien couple finally got ticked off with waiting around, and vamoosed. Thus, Marty, Debbie and the kids are actually the first Earthlings that the aliens have had any real contact with.

Mind you, the aliens believe they have blended into American suburban life. They've named themselves and their kids after famous athletes: Wilt Chamberlain, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Larry Bird and Dick Butkus. This is funny for a while, but things get stranger.

When Marty and Debbie are invited for dinner, they are served food while their hosts read books, asserting that it's more important to sustain the mind than the body. This is one of Marty's first clues that these people just ain't normal. There is also a clever bit of comic business about male-female relations and how male dominance in certain areas can be upended.

The Neighbors is one of those shows that makes some critics uneasy or dismissive. It's had some terrible reviews and a generally lukewarm reception. It reminds some critics of Third Rock from the Sun. Its funny moments aren't conventional sitcom-funny moments. The humour flows from goofy to angry. Much of the unease is about the mockery of accepted wisdoms that some critics themselves rarely question.

There is the matter of "likeability" on a sitcom. The likeability factor on The Neighbors is mercurial. At times it views the alien group as a cult and there is humour at the expense of religious groups from Catholics to Scientologists.

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Probably, the show won't last more than a handful of episodes. It's fresh, frisky and sometimes has the sort of sneering tone that will irritate viewers looking for a cozy time. This sitcom literally defies convention.

And that reminds me – a good deal of the orthodoxy that mainstream television does indeed propagate can be found on police procedurals. Tonight sees the return of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (NBC, CTV Two, 9 p.,m.), Criminal Minds (CBS, 8 p.m.) and CSI (CBS, CTV, 10 p.m.), all of which are essentially paranoid crime dramas that assert that conformity is everything. Non-conformists tend to be the suspects in any crime.

In these shows, life is one long struggle against violent psychopaths. They fetishize the sadistic actions of criminals and suggest that only cops, forensics experts and highly skilled profilers can protect the public from evil-doers. Those evil-doers are generally nailed because they did or said something unconventional.

This is standard stuff – mainstream network TV shows usually offer comfort by suggesting that uniformity and predictability are sterling attributes.

At the same time, there is one show that undermines much of what is presented as accepted wisdom in the genre. Dexter (returning Sunday, TMN, Movie Central, at 9 p.m.) is a deeply subversive series in that it exists in a world that's easily recognizable from Law & Order: SVU or CSI, yet that world is not what it seems.

Dexter features cops and forensics experts – Dexter Morgan is the guy who arrives at crime scene to examine blood splatters and such – but the core storyline is that nothing is quite what it seems. Dexter Morgan is a serial killer with a heart of gold. Sometimes, Dexter feels like CSI-on-acid, and that's a vital part of its appeal.

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So there, I say. For all that television can be said to maintain the status quo, it is now so vast that there is plenty of room for comedies and dramas that attack conformity, mock conventionality and undermine the conventions of TV itself.

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