“Abby’s is filmed in front of a live outdoor audience,” co-star Neil Flynn says at the start of each episode of this charming new NBC comedy about an unlicensed bar run by the title character (Natalie Morales) in her backyard. (It’s shot on the same studio back lot as Wisteria Lane from Desperate Housewives.) The announcement signals the DNA of the series: a hybrid of old-school and new-school sitcom aesthetics.
On the one hand, Abby’s has that live audience, which it feeds with your standard set-up/punchline rhythms. When Abby’s most reliable customer Fred (Flynn) points out that he hasn’t missed a day at the bar in three years, Abby dubs him “the Cal Ripken of low-grade alcoholism.” The arrival of Bill (Nelson Franklin), a nerdy engineer who inherits the house that Abby rents, causes brief tension, but within an episode, he’s treated as just another part of the crew, like next-door neighbor Beth (Jessica Chaffin), bartender Rosie (Kimia Behpoornia) and cowardly bouncer James (Leonard Ouzts). In certain ways, Abby’s could air on the same Eighties NBC that was home to Cheers — not coincidentally, the favorite comedy of executive producer Mike Schur (The Good Place).
On the other hand, though, Abby’s is casually woke: Our heroine is an Afghanistan vet and bisexual. The latter attribute is a first for the main character of a network comedy, but treated matter-of-factly. It’s not even mentioned in the pilot, coming up instead via a subplot in the second episode where Bill embarrasses himself by reacting to the news by saying, “Congratulations.” (“Congratulations?” Abby replies. “I didn’t win a raffle!”) Abby’s time in the Marines provides some emotional grounding to her decision to start an illegal bar business, but that’s also treated as a relatively minor detail compared to the interaction among the group.
And it’s there that Abby’s feels most modern, in ways good and bad. The series has the loose hangout vibe of a more modern single-camera sitcoms like New Girl (where creator Josh Malmuth worked). It’s not a wildly funny show — I laughed out loud only a handful of times — but the jokes feel less important than the chance to spend time each week in the company of some appealing goofballs.
Fortunately, it’s a likable enough group — Morales and Flynn in particular — to compensate for the mild humor. Between Scrubs and The Middle, Flynn has been a sitcom regular for most of this century. He’s talented and versatile enough to go as big or as small as a moment demands, and he’s still nimble and game for some basic slapstick, like Fred struggling to finish a free but disgusting drink for the principle of the thing. Morales has mostly had to play fifth banana or lower on other people’s shows (she had a recurring role on Schur’s Parks and Recreation as Tom’s best love interest). This is the vehicle she’s been waiting for — as have the people who’ve been rooting for her since her one previous series lead on the underrated comic book gem The Middleman — and she makes the most of it. Just as the bar is the spot her friends and neighbors opt to build their nights around, Abby herself is the star everybody else eagerly orbits. Morales is more than charming and cool enough to fit the bill.
It’s harder for a multicam show like Abby’s to get away with this kind of pleasant but not raucous tone. The presence of the studio audience is palpable (the camera sometimes swoops over the bleachers at the end of commercial breaks), which in turn makes it more obvious when jokes don’t land — or even try to land. Schur isn’t the hands-on showrunner, but almost every series he’s been involved with has demonstrated significant creative growth across and after their respective first seasons. Hopefully, Abby’s follows suit and figures out how to generate more belly laughs. But even if it doesn’t, TV has recently been in a drought for the kind of reassuring good time that the series already provides, and that the bar’s regulars seek out whenever they wander into Abby’s backyard.
“Look,” Fred announces, while encouraging the others to keep drinking the awful but free booze, “These are tough days for America. The country is deeply divided. The only thing we can agree on is drinking alcohol. We need to do this. We need to do this for America.”
Abby’s debuts March 28th on NBC. I’ve seen three episodes.