Tommy Wiseau’s The Neighbors Defies Any Attempts to Appreciate It
From the creator of the so-bad-it’s-good cult classic The Room comes a sitcom so terrible that even self-awareness and a devoted fanbase can’t save it.
No truly awful film in history is perhaps as deserving of deep affection and attention as The Room. The independent movie, which debuted in 2003 with a limited release in Los Angeles, tells the story of a man named Johnny whose fiancee is cheating on him with his best friend. It eventually became an underground sensation for its charmingly incoherent narrative, a rash of continuity errors, bizarre acting, and memorable one-liners. The mythology surrounding the film's eccentric creator/star Tommy Wiseau—who still frequently tours the country for popular midnight screenings—only added to The Room's stature as an apotheosis of the gleefully bad, cult-classic genre.
But all the "Oh hi, Mark" inside jokes in the world couldn't save the nightmare that is Wiseau's first big project since his magnum opus: a sitcom called The Neighbors, which just dropped on Hulu. The series, of which the first four episodes are available, is set in an apartment building run by Charlie (Wiseau) and his girlfriend Bebe, who deal with a host of repugnant tenants. But the show's abysmal production values and disregard for plot are less detestable than the characters themselves—who steal, lie, allegedly have sex with chickens, and threaten to kill each other in their sleep. The result is an unenjoyable, soulless mess that undermines Wiseau's power as a cult celebrity whose unique touch yielded something as treasured as The Room.
On the surface, making a follow-up to The Room sounds like a perfectly savvy choice for someone with a legion of fans, some of whom have seen the film 300 times and have developed elaborate theories about character backstories. The Neighbors certainly attempts to riff on the qualities that made its predecessor so beloved: a loose approach to continuity, outlandish characters, and a general WTF-inducing vibe. But it lacks The Room's self-serious earnestness (which Wiseau has tried to defuse by retroactively claiming the movie was meant to be a black comedy), its intriguing roster of personalities, and its intoxicating melodrama. The sitcom instead feels like something shot on an iPad by some drunk, bored high schoolers.
The Neighbors tries to paint a diverse portrait of American life, but instead ends up insulting everyone it depicts. Most of the women appear in various states of undress, most of the men are perverts. In the first episode, a character of Asian descent storms into Charlie's office ranting accusing a "black guy ... the rapper guy" of cutting off his wi-fi. In the second, a character named Troy introduces himself to a visiting British princess by grabbing her butt—to no protest. A constantly screaming old woman (who first appears in a tight miniskirt and crop top) verbally harasses and tries to fight a neighbor who identifies as a lesbian.
It's strange to slam a show not just for being bad, but for not being bad in the right way. Because, as the devoted followings for critically deplored films like Manos: The Hands of Fate and Troll 2 indicate, there is a right way to embody badness and transcend it. The creation of a so-bad-it's-good cult classic is a largely populist affair, depending on the outsize passion of relatively small number of people who come together ad hoc to both eviscerate and champion some awful-but-amazing work (and preferably not let it get too popular, like The Room).
There's a specific brand of criticism that's the lifeblood of these movies: the criticism-of-bad-things as entertainment in itself. This phenomenon originated with the late-80s TV series Mystery Science Theater 3000, where a man and his robots watched and made fun of old B-movies, and that show's influence can be seen everywhere from Beavis and Butthead's music-video commentary skits to YouTube channels like YourMovieSucks. It feels as good to laugh at other people's observations and wisecracks as it does to laugh at bad cinema, and so a kind of symbiosis arises between the armchair analysis of niche delights and the works themselves. Even if it's just people parroting quotes, the movies live on.
Which is where The Neighbors loses out. The Room's success came from the organic enthusiasm of its fans, from its mythic rise from obscurity to a welcome addition to the midnight-movie marquee alongside The Rocky Horror Picture Show. But The Neighbors has done nothing to earn the cheerful disdain Wiseau's fans were ready to shower upon it. It lazily attempts to recreate the formula of its predecessor, as if making a cult hit were a paint-by-numbers affair and appreciation were something that could be coerced from viewers by shocking them.
In all, the show reveals the limits of Tommy Wiseau's status as a cult celebrity: a guy with a vaguely European accent who won't say where he's from or how he got $6 million to make The Room. Wiseau's ineffable weirdness and charm can't elevate his new series from the inadvertent cruelty that permeates the characters' relationships. Nor can it transform the shoddy camera work, sound editing, acting, and "storylines" into something digestible, even for a surprisingly broad fan base that's already eager see to treasure in trash.
The Neighbors will likely only be embraced by the most diehard and indiscriminate of The Room fans; at best, it can get a new generation to check out the earlier work, which, for all its glorious flaws, has heart. Wiseau has long maintained, quite seriously, that the meaning of The Room is that people should love each other. "Look at today's society. Everything you see in the Room is related to real life," he said Tuesday in a Reddit AMA. It was a bit of a long shot, but The Room at least had a degree of tenderness and innocence—something The Neighbors probably could have used more of. Without any kind of warmth, the show can most clearly be seen as the shoddy disappointment it is.