The exec producer tells us about TBS' first original animated series.
Last night TBS debuted its first original animated series, Neighbors from Hell (Mondays, 10/9c) from 20th Century Fox TV and DreamWorks Animation, which some are calling a cross between South Park and Family Guy. It's about a family from hell sent to earth (the Hellmans, of course) to pose as normal suburbanites and complete their mission to prevent a giant drill from making its way to hell. The family is headed by Balthazor (Will Sasso), whose growing affection for humans and their odd but endearing qualities threatens their mission; his wife, Tina (Molly Shannon), who wishes she was anywhere but suburban America; their two children, Mandy (Tracey Fairaway) and Josh (David Soren), who quickly adapt to their new surroundings; their dog, Pazuzu (Patton Oswalt), the real brains of the family; and Uncle Vlartaark (South Park writer Kyle McCulloch) who has an appetite for felines. Pam Brady (South Park), exec producer, who wrote the pilot, tells us all about the new series.
Bill Desowitz: How did Neighbors from Hell happen?
It was originally developed at DreamWorks Animation as a feature and they thought the concept would lend itself better to an ongoing series.
BD: When did you come on?
PB: I've been working on this for three years… The good news is that whenever you work on something, you always have another shot at it. And the bad news is that whenever you work on something, you always have another shot at it.
BD: It was always 2D?
PB: Yes, I just think that what's appealing for television right now and what seems to work is 2D. Even though South Park is technically 3D but flattened with expensive software to make it look like a kid did it. When it looks too real, I just think it can be off-putting. Keeping it in 2D was definitely a stylistic choice.
BD: Where is it animated?
PB: The majority of animation is done at Bardel up in Vancouver. However, we have a team of animators in Los Angeles [Bento Box] that does retakes and some animation as well. Both sites are under the artistic supervision of our Supervising Animator Sylvain DeBoissey. We do all the writing, storyboarding, characters and layout here with John Rice as supervising director.
BD: And what are the challenges you face with this show?
PB: Well, I think one of the biggest challenges is how you make a family of demons likable? How do you get on their side? It really was one of those things that we went round and round about. You don't want to remove that it's fun to watch demons because they like to see things blow up. In a way, it's like Bart Simpson: you like fun mischief but you don't like evil.
BD: How did you resolve the issue?
PB: I think Dexter was one of the biggest influences -- at least for me. Even though Dexter is a serial killer, you can get behind someone who has a code. And the way we set up the show is that hell, which is the center of the earth, runs on souls, so it's almost like the oil industry. So the fact that so many people are being bad on earth means that hell's has more abundance there, and the idea is that it's a one industry town. And the father of the family processes the souls, so it's like he works at the refinery. Everybody has a job and we don't make a judgment about what they do because that's their job -- and they think that only the guilty get tortured.
BD: And we start messing with the environment?
PB: Exactly. And if we destroy them, we destroy us. The other satire we do where people go awry is that they would never do the same sort of stuff that humans would do to each other. You only punish the deserving. And, of course, when you do punish the deserving, you take it to def con 50. But we also set up the fact that Satan meets our Dick Cheney kind of Killbride character [Kurtwood Smith] at one point. It's a good time to be ripping on corporate CEOs at this point.
BD: And it's a perfect fish-out-of-water story.
PB: The whole thing is they have to fit in and their whole handbook for fitting in is the fact that all they know about earth is what they've seen in television shows. And the reason they got sent to earth is because the father secretly watches the human TV shows he uses to torture the souls in hell. And he's really naïve and thinks that things wrap up in 22 minutes.
BD: So what a surprise to learn he's wrong.
PB: He's constantly shocked by how people are behaving toward each other.
BD: What's the animation process like?
PB: This is kind of cool: We do it digital using Harmony. We do it conventionally in the sense that we really work on the storyboards. And that becomes a whole process unto itself. We sit there and review the storyboards and work the scenes out there, so, by the time we ship it for color animation, we just finesse it when it comes back. On this show, we're definitely trying more than other shows I've worked on to get the writers to talk to the storyboard artists and the storyboard artists to talk to the writers. I mean, SpongeBob is so awesome because it's written by storyboard artists. And I just think the more that writers can think like artists and artists can think like writers [the better it is]. And John is great guiding that. So, yeah, by the time we send the animatic to Bardel, we punch up a joke here and there and do retakes here, but we're not surprised.
BD: And how do the voice sessions work?
PB: Sometimes we have overlap, but most times we have people individually. We have a great cast so that's been so fun.
BD: And what's it been like working with TBS?
PB: I think it's the best experience I've ever had with a network: they support us totally. And creatively, that's what makes writing for them more satisfying than one of the big three-and-a-half broadcast networks.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.