Abby’s is the type of sitcom that is destined to drive “comedy nerds” up the wall. Executive produced by Mike Schur (The Good Place, Brooklyn Nine-Nine) and created by Josh Malmuth (Superstore, New Girl), Abby’s stars Natalie Morales (The Grinder, Trophy Wife, The Middleman) as Abby, the proprietor of an illegal — yet still very popular — San Diego neighborhood bar that operates out of her backyard. In fact, the show even filmed outdoors, at Universal Studios, right off of Wisteria Lane, so there is a sense of authenticity from the jump. That’s all already a hook right there, from the creative pedigree to the lead to even the slightly off-kilter premise. Rounding out the supporting cast are proven sitcom commodities like Neil Flynn (Scrubs, The Middle), Nelson Franklin (Veep, New Girl), and Jessica Chaffin (Big Mouth, Man With a Plan), as well as stand-up comedian Leonard Ouzts and improviser Kimia Behpoornia.
If you love or even like comedy, Abby’s should be for you. After all, the show is about a group of disparate individuals who form a tight-knight community — a winning combination for any hangout sitcom.
But then there’s the reality that “Abby’s is filmed in front of a live outdoor audience” (which is also the quirky intro to the series, provided at the opening of every episode). Yes, despite having a mountain of things comedy nerds should be able to unite over, Abby’s is a multi-camera sitcom with a live non-“studio” audience. (Not a laugh track.) This tends to come with the argument that a show that essentially is telling you something is funny because someone is laughing — not necessarily because there’s an actual joke — is proof that this is an antiquated format. You’ve probably even seen a clip or two of The Big Bang Theory with the laughter taken out to prove this point.
However, that’s an argument that ignores series like The Carmichael Show — which also aired on NBC, for three seasons and regularly tackled “hot button issues” on a weekly basis — and One Day At A Time, which we are all currently mourning the loss of. Both shows managed to be funny while also saying something interesting and succeeding under the multi-cam banner. (For an example that’s still on the air, look to Mom, which tackles addiction, loss, and mental health.)
Admittedly, Abby’s is neither on the same quality nor seriousness level of either show — though it does bring in some early weight by making Abby a former Marine who served two tours in Afghanistan, while also handling the character’s status as an openly-bisexual Cuban-American woman — but its existence as a multi-cam sitcom is not to blame for any shortcomings. And even if never becomes a more serious show (assuming it will live long enough to see that choice be made), it being a multi-cam sitcom is, again, not to blame for that.
Then there’s, of course, the Cheers of it all, as Abby’s also seems to exist to be compared to one of the greatest sitcoms (multi-cam or otherwise) of all time. Cheers didn’t prevent any future show from primarily taking place at a bar, just like Friends didn’t prevent future shows from focusing on a group of, well, friends; but it did make clearing the bar (no pun intended) of quality and standing out as something original (even if it does pay homage) a much more difficult task. For every Mixology or Traffic Light (sorry, Nelson Franklin), TV audiences have at least been gifted with something special like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or Happy Endings. Abby’s is immediately climbing an uphill battle to avoid being the former, but based on the first three episodes, it will also require a lot more to come anywhere close to the latter. And even the latter came out the gates with a more of a defined comedic identity than Abby’s.
Abby’s is shticky, but it really gets by on charm and vibe. Both in terms of the backyard set and especially in the case of the magnetic Natalie Morales — who especially sells why everyone is so drawn to Abby’s. If anything, it will probably be by sheer force of will on Morales’ part if Abby’s makes it past the first season and becomes more than unobtrusively pleasant. Again, comparing it to Cheers, the series really is about community and found family, the idea of going to “a place where everybody knows your name.” It’s also about making up dumb drinking traditions with your friends and sticking to them, which is the most relatable part of all. Abby’s could be much funnier, as the jokes early on certainly play it safe enough to make get a chuckle or an appreciative smile. It’s certainly a more pleasant experience than any promo for the series would have you believe, but network promotion only making shows look worse is another topic.
As for the rest of the cast, there’s a reason why Neil Flynn is now on a streak of 17 straight seasons and counting as a sitcom series regular, and after nine seasons on The Middle as the most curmudgeonly of Midwestern dads, it’s nice to see him loosen up a bit. As Fred, he’s still playing a “man’s man” who loves beer, but Abby’s allows him to play up a goofier side that’s as much appreciated as the character’s paternal relationship to Abby.
But it’s Jessica Chaffin as Beth who might just be the MVP of the series, taking the very broad and cliche concept of a wife and mother who wants nothing to do with her family — just a stone’s throw away from Abby’s, as the next door neighbor/de facto best friend — and plays it as though you couldn’t tell her to her face it’s nothing new. Nelson Franklin’s Bill is essentially what you expect from Franklin anywhere other than Black-ish, and as the outsider who becomes a new member of the Abby’s crew, he’s the one who helps the audience navigate this world. It’s a standard character, and while Franklin is adept at the role, it’s also surprisingly superfluous. The show’s easy to navigate with or without Bill; when the series begins, he’s somewhat of a foil to Abby, a role that the series could actually use. The fact that this is an illegal bar suggests there should be a little more regular push back, no?
(Ouzts and Behpoornia are the “weak” links, playing the broadest characters of the bunch, as the former’s James is relied on for the obvious “big guy with the biggest heart” lines and the latter’s Rosie recites the expository rules of the bar. But those are also the types of roles that tend to get better with more time spent with the character.)
Is Abby’s only its gimmick? Honestly, no. Not just because of the cast, either: If anything, it could possibly succeed with more of a gimmick. If NBC ever tried to pull off the weekly live TV series gimmick again (like Undateable), Abby’s would benefit from it, because the series’ atmosphere begs for a truly live experience. Abby’s is nothing special, but it’s also not the disaster one would expect from the gimmick. Kind of like the titular bar itself, Abby’s kind of sneaks up on you with its charm and relatively laid back attitude for a typically more frantic style of sitcom. (That it will be following Will & Grace might not be the best fit, tonally.) Now, is Abby’s really the best use of its cast and crew’s time, in terms of their comedic talent and creative ability? Well, that would be a bar lie to believe as much.