NBC’s new booze-fueled, bar-set comedy Abby’s is not a life-of-the-party rambunctious drunk, the crazy friend you never forget to invite in hopes that the evening will become an adventure. Abby’s also isn’t a surly drunk, the friend you have to learn to cut off before a fight ensues and who, ultimately, you just stop hanging out with.
No, Abby’s is a quiet drunk, prone to sitting in a corner booth and getting contemplative over their seventh or eighth beer, sometimes prone to a droll aside and sometimes willing to pick up a round of drinks, but mostly just an amiable and drama-free chum.
Put a different way, Abby’s is the latest NBC comedy to premiere with a decent premise, a terrific cast and, at least through the opening episodes sent to critics, almost no actual laughs. Superstore started the same way and became an extremely funny show. A.P. Bio started the same way and remains likable, if not always funny. I Feel Bad started the same way and never really found a consistent voice. You never know, but there’s plenty of room for Abby’s to grow from this pleasant but flat beginning.
The series was created by Superstore veteran Josh Malmuth and executive produced by Mike Schur, whose The Good Place and Brooklyn Nine-Nine (and Parks and Recreation before that) represent an eternal best-case scenario for NBC comedies. Natalie Morales plays Abby, a former Marine who has turned the backyard of her San Diego-area rental into a wholly unlicensed and wholly illegal outdoor bar, complete with three-dollar beers, an elaborate tiered seating structure, a vintage jukebox and a potentially dangerous grill. The bar seems to be Abby’s only source of income, and it appears to do well enough to support a bouncer who never actually bounces (Leonard Ouzts’ James), a waitress who very rarely waits (Kimia Behpoornia’s Rosie) and an assortment of alcoholic regulars including Neil Flynn’s Fred and Jessica Chaffin’s Beth. Complication comes in the form of Bill (Nelson Franklin), Abby’s uptight new landlord who, of course, freaks out when he sees that his property is being used for a wholly unlicensed and wholly illegal outdoor bar for which he has been receiving no compensation.
That should read “complication *briefly* comes in the form of…” because Abby’s is an almost astonishingly conflict-free show. Sitcoms aren’t necessarily driven by the highest of stakes, but no matter how low you set the bar (so to speak) for intensity, Abby’s opts for something more easygoing. You realize almost immediately that Bill isn’t intended as an antagonist and that he will soon be just another, somewhat intentionally annoying, part of the ensemble. The three episodes sent to critics are nonsequential and don’t really build much in terms of the bar’s legality or any developing character relationships or much of anything. Each episode consists of the characters sitting around the bar talking and occasional brief interludes inside Abby’s house. The impact verges on nil, and so the question becomes entirely whether you find these people pleasant enough to sit around with for 22 minutes listening to their conversations.
Those conversations have some heart, but they aren’t all that amusing. There are personal stories — Bill’s character is defined by the fact that he tells dull, self-obsessed stories that really ought to be funnier — riffs on boozing and bar etiquette and, at least in the pilot, a decent run involving the bar’s exhaustive book of rules. That rule book calls to mind the obsessive attention to detail that steers The Good Place and the astonishing series institutional memory that drives Brooklyn Nine-Nine, so naturally the rule book is a negligible presence in subsequent episodes. The problem is that if you introduce something like that, I start asking lots and lots of logistical questions, thinking my curiosity will be rewarded. But when the show moves in other directions, I’m left pondering how the bar builds word-of-mouth, why there are no neighborhood noise complaints, how much Abby pays her employees who don’t seem to be doing anything and, if I’m being candid, what the allure of Abby’s is other than reasonably cheap drinks. These are mysteries that I’m certain will be covered if the show lasts a few seasons. Maybe.
The cast is the thing that would keep me watching that long. It’s wonderful to see Morales back in a lead role after a long string of too-brief, scene-stealing guest turns for the Middleman star. Here, she’s using a full array of tonal weapons, rather than the expert deadpan or wide-eyed enthusiasm her briefer appearances have usually leaned into. I appreciate the aspects of Morales’ personality and biography that the writers have woven into Abby’s character and I wish the punchlines she’s hitting so well were sharper. The same is true of Flynn and Chaffin, both unimpeachable pros trying hard and both working a bit above the material. I got more smiles out of Ouzts than any of the other supporting players, amidst some frustration that his large but soft-spoken character is such a total archetype he’s basically the Ron Funches character from Undateable, another initially likable-but-laughless NBC comedy that this one resembles.
Undateable came into its own, briefly, when NBC let the show actually air live in front of a studio audience, feeding off its presentational gimmick for added energy. Abby’s may want to consider something comparable. There has to be a way for it to get more out of its own presentational gimmick — namely, the decision to film outside in front of an audience. Other than the periodic pullback shots featuring the bleachers and set, it’s a fun idea that adds nothing to the viewing experience.
There’s a lot of room for tinkering on Abby’s and a lot of elements that could eventually turn the show into a winner. Based on the early returns, it’s going to take some patience. Or maybe just a few beers.
Cast: Natalie Morales, Kimia Behpoornia, Jessica Chaffin, Neil Flynn, Nelson Franklin, Leonard Ouzts
Creator: Josh Malmuth
Premieres: Thursday, 9:30 p.m. ET/PT (NBC)