Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and sometimes you want to go where you already know the jokes. You already know the characters. You know the set and the rhythm and the exact timbre of the laugh track. The hometown-tavern sitcom may never escape (let alone overtake) Cheers, but Abby’s at least provides complacent comfort in its familiarity.
From the opening shot, which cranes over the audience at the taping (they’re there, they’re live!), there’s a sense of beer-sippin’, jazz-hatin’, middlebrow-itude being served as the house special: If Abby’s tried to reinvent anything, it would go against its founding principles. When creator Josh Malmuth does move forward, as in the well-handled bisexuality of Natalie Morales’ Abby, its clever novelty actually disrupts the hoary tone of the show. It’s a constant battle to update old tropes without abandoning the change-fearing tropes themselves.
Abby is the bartender/proprietor of her own unlicensed San Diego speakeasy, nestled in her backyard under string lights illuminating salty drunks and eccentrics with nowhere else to go. The rebelliousness ends there. Co-bartender Rosie (Kimia Behpoornia) and bouncer James (Leonard Ouzts) round out the ranks, but the cast of regulars—Fred (Neil Flynn), Bill (Nelson Franklin), and Beth (Jessica Chaffin)—is where the show finally earns some real laughs.
Flynn’s been consistently Emmy-worthy since Scrubs and, because The Middle wasn’t as widely seen as its dopier cousin, Modern Family, Abby’s may be the place where he can finally nab some recognition for his warm, rumpled supporting performances—if only because he stands so far out. Chaffin and Ouzts both deliver pretty standard jokes in disarming ways, making the lines seem that much more clever, but Flynn does most of the heavy lifting. Both Behpoornia and Morales, to some extent, seem to be uncomfortable in the staging or under misguided direction, but no matter the reason, their line deliveries are too stagey, simple, unnatural. With the rest of the cast operating normally—you know, speaking like humans?—they appear entirely too aware of their surroundings.
Those surroundings, shown off in a pilot from prolific How I Met Your Mother director Pamela Fryman, works quick and dirty to establish a familiar vibe with traditions and rituals as intact as the relationships among these characters. But after the promise of the cold open, the exposition deluge flows freely. The shoehorned set-up about Abby’s (its illegal status, for one thing) and its patrons dominates the episode—though at least it comes from one of the unsung kings of deadpan, Nelson Franklin, who plays her landlord. Franklin, whose presence is a blessing, quietly gives out gems like, “I lost my virginity to a CD of whale songs,” as he’s ignored by characters shouting (mostly) about booze.
Despite the occasional stiffness of inflection, though, Abby is rather fascinating, a character whose odds and ends all make their way into Morales’ performance. It’s an immediately distinctive turn, and especially rare in a sitcoms that might get away with throwing enough backstory at its characters to keep the audience around for the jokes. Abby was in the military and isn’t blessed with the comforting charisma of a typical bartender, or her easy ear. She’s gruff, private, and commanding. The character would usually be played by an imposing fatherly type whose validation the other characters constantly seek. That the writers effectively kept that stereotypical character, yet cast Morales in the role, is another strange yet engrossing collision between progress and conservatism in the show. But that can often mean it’s stuck in the tepid middle.
Where drinking is typically cast as the social activity catalyzing a group of strangers to share their woes and get into misadventures, Abby’s embraces alcohol for alcohol’s sake. It’s part of the show’s dedication to an inoffensive, unpretentious norm. Norm from Cheers, in fact, acts as a baseline for each character. With his love of drink and endearing hatred of work and his wife, Norm represented the addictive id behind every Joe Blow’s comfort-seeking sip. At Abby’s, that’s all there is. Fun moments can be had, but without any engine—like Sam Malone’s runaway libido or HIMYM’s constantly-nearing end point—it’s sitcom content to sit and nurse its drink.
The three episodes made available for review have plenty of confidence, and an identity all their own. The problem is, there’s not much humor beyond that wrung from dehydrated, microwaved writing by the solid supporting cast. The vibe works; the jokes are rocky. Maybe that’s something the series figures out as its laughs become more character-centric, as we become more familiar with the crew. Maybe it’ll be stuck in mid-tier, “charmed smirk but no laughter” sitcom status until its comedy gets some bite. And maybe it’ll be content to sit and soak. Abby’s is definitely a dive you know, for better and for worse.
Abby’s premieres Thursday at 9:30 p.m. on NBC.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.