In ‘Abby’s,’ it’s the jokes that have been watered down
It’s the era of “Cheers,” and so . . . Oh wait. It’s the era of everything that’s the opposite of “Cheers” — single-camera setups without laugh tracks, humor that rarely comes down to punch lines, and a strong undercurrent of drama. In the years since the classic ensemble sitcoms that gave us groups of friends as family, all cracking wise at the bar or in their New York apartments (see under: “Friends”), we’ve seen a move toward the more bittersweet character-driven stories of “Better Things” and “Barry,” as well as toward the unique premises of “The Good Place” and “Russian Doll.”
So “Abby’s,” an attempt to re-up the magic of “Cheers” at a time when TV comedy has moved on, arrives as a throwback — an intentional throwback, it seems. The NBC show, which premieres Thursday at 9:30 p.m., is set at an illegal backyard bar in San Diego run by Natalie Morales’s ex-Marine, Abby. A group of regulars gather there every evening to drink, share their problems, escape their ruts, and run through familiar banter, forming a support system that helps them get through the day. It’s the Central Perk of “Friends,” MacLaren’s from “How I Met Your Mother,” Monk’s from “Seinfeld,” you name it.
I guess it’s fair to think that this good, old-fashioned format still has life in it. For one thing, “Friends” remains intensely popular in reruns, a warm, nostalgic escape from a world in crisis. And then many of the classic multi-camera sitcoms, including “Roseanne” (which is now doing business as “The Conners”) and “Will & Grace,” have been successfully revived of late. My guess is that show creator Josh Malmuth, along with executive producer Michael Schur of “The Good Place” and “Parks and Recreation,” are hoping to tap into the comfort-food aspect of the old sitcom style while freshening it up with a few contemporary tweaks, most notably that Abby, the calm center of the action, is a bisexual veteran who did two tours in Afghanistan.
In another tweak, the series is filmed outdoors, on a set built for the show. Those breezes rustling the cast’s hair? They’re real. The result is an atmosphere that’s slightly less claustrophobic than indoor stage sets.
My initial reaction to this retro effort, based on the first three episodes, was disappointment. I didn’t laugh even once; instead, I cringed over and over at the bland repartee and the way each character has one primary quality, which he or she telegraphs to us at every chance. Fred (Neil Flynn) is the snappy old friend of Abby’s father and the bar’s first customer; Beth (Jessica Chaffin) is the wry neighbor who ducks out on her family as often as she can; James (Leonard Ouzts) is the dimwitted and frightened bouncer; and Bill (Nelson Franklin) is the wary new landlord. They’re predictable, which is to be expected in a bar sitcom where the characters feel at home; but they’re predictable in stereotypical ways that quickly seem flat.
I’d been hoping that, with Schur’s input, “Abby’s” would add fresher dynamics to the dated sitcom style. His shows have strong ensembles whose members are so much more than joke delivery systems. Ah well. The characters on “Abby’s” will be there for you when you’re stuck in second gear, but I’m not sure you’ll want to go to see them.
Starring: Natalie Morales, Neil Flynn, Nelson Franklin, Jessica Chaffin, Leonard Ouzts
On: NBC, Thursday at 9:30 p.m.