“Abby’s,” NBC’s new comedy about a cranky bartender (Natalie Morales) and her inner circle of regulars, is aware of the inevitable “Cheers” comparisons.
Created by “New Girl” writer Josh Malmuth and executive produced by uber-producer (and unabashed “Cheers” superfan) Mike Schur, “Abby’s” therefore makes a few key choices in order to differentiate itself as its own entity. The most immediately obvious difference is that “Abby’s” is the first multi-cam sitcom to be filmed outdoors. Taking advantage of Los Angeles’ generally static weather (recent rain deluge aside), the backyard setting creates a more casual, warm vibe. Outside of the quirky characters who fill it — played by capable comedic actors like Neil Flynn, Nelson Franklin, and Jessica Chaffin — the show imbues the bar itself with a personality and living mythology all its own, which makes for an easy way in to weirdo shenanigans.
Most unique is Abby herself, the central bartender who rules her illegal bar with an iron fist and around whom everything, and everyone, orbits. She’s spiky, wary, and fiercely protective of the space she’s created. Abby is also a bisexual, Cuban-American Army veteran, all of which the show divulges casually in conversation as would be the case in real life. (Significantly, Morales is the first Cuban-American actor to anchor a broadcast network comedy since Desi Arnaz, and playing the first openly bisexual lead of a broadcast network comedy since…well, ever.) Morales is long overdue a leading role like this, and in her hands, Abby delivers jokes in a dry, deliberate deadpan that keeps scenes grounded as her regulars bounce off the (figurative) walls.
After watching three episodes of exposition and hijinks, it’s clear that “Abby’s” needs a bit more time to get acquainted with itself. This makes sense; most comedies, especially those getting their sea legs while also performing in front of a live studio audience, do. The real question will be if the able actors and writers will lock into a more unified, distinctive groove going forward. In the early going, the jokes are generally fun, but rarely surprising. They also tend to lean a little too hard on the “we’re all here to get drunk” of it all, which could get tired quick if they’re not careful to build out aspects of everyone’s personalities beyond their shared disdain for fruity drinks.
It’s not hard to imagine that “Abby’s” could become a welcome regular on NBC’s blossoming comedy schedule given its promising cast and crew. But as it stands right now, show just needs some more time, inventive punchlines, and commitment to what makes it different from what’s come before in order to truly get there.