Network television’s latest breakout star is out of this world in more ways then one.
“The Neighbors,” an absurdist sitcom about an all-American family that moves to a gated community populated with aliens, was expected to last about as long as one of Mork’s reports to Orson. Cast member Toks Olagundoye was probably preparing to file the role on her résumé somewhere between Reporter No. 2 on “CSI:NY” and Salesgirl on “Ugly Betty.”
Then something very strange happened. TV critics, who had called for a quick end to the show, started warming to it, a change of heart that ABC has cleverly been using in a new marketing slogan: “It’s OK to say you like it.”
“The Neighbors” isn’t guaranteed a renewal, but as it winds up its freshman season Wednesday, there’s no doubt that Olagundoye has made a long-lasting mark on Planet Hollywood.
In her role as alien housewife Jackie Joyner-Kersee (all the visitors have adopted the names of famous athletes) Olagundoye could easily have faded into the wallpaper, especially when paired with domineering husband Larry Bird, played with theatrical gusto by Simon Templeman.
But her “Lucille Ball 2.0” take on the character is getting some of the series’ biggest laughs. In last week’s episode, her determination to help both human friend Debbie Weaver (Jami Gertz) and a local Girl Scout troop accidentally led to the creation of an underground sweatshop. Earlier in the season, she misinterpreted the intent of a girls’ night and turned it into a series of scenes straight out of “The Real Housewives of New Jersey.”
Through every misadventure, she keeps her chin up — as well as her cockeyed optimism.
“Not to be purple, but I’ve never been a ‘bad boy’ kind of girl. I like manners,” she said in a phone interview from her home in Los Angeles. “Having a sweet, wide-eyed, awkward character is more charming and allows for more range. If you come from anger, you’re going to reach a ceiling very quickly.”
Her off-center approach attracted the show’s creator, Dan Fogelman, during casting.
“Toks simply stood out,” he said. “Beyond being amazing to look at, she did everything we threw at her — accents, singing, dancing, physical comedy. It’s fitting that she’s having such success playing an alien, as she very possibly is one.”
Olagundoye swears she was born in Nigeria and grew up in England and Switzerland before attending Smith College in Massachusetts.
She spent the past decade surviving on guest-star roles in TV series, a streak that paid the bills but kept her from taking chances.
“When you’re not a regular part of the show, it’s tough to let loose because you don’t know the energy of the people or the tone of the set,” she said. “Now I’m good friends with my character and I feel safe with everyone I work with. I trust them and they trust me. You’re able to do more when you’re not clouded with wasted anxiety.”
Olagundoye admits that the early bad reviews were off-putting.
“I think that people were really ready to dislike it,” she said. “They were writing it off before they’d even seen the pilot. It’s amazing how quickly people are to come from the negative side.”
But she and her “Neighbors” may have the last laugh. The sitcom averages 6 million viewers, nowhere close to blockbuster status, but a 27 percent increase over the network’s previous show in that Wednesday time slot, “Happy Endings,” and ABC stuck by that series. On the other hand, the network has ordered 12 sitcom pilots, a sign that it doesn’t have a lot of confidence in its current crop, with the exception of “The Middle” and “Modern Family.”
Even if “Neighbors” doesn’t get renewed, Olagundoye is thrilled to call these past nine months the happiest period in her life.
“It’s like summer camp, where everyone is in such a good mood and are there to make friends,” she said. “Let’s have fun while we can have fun.”