REVIEW: NBC’s “Abby’s”

Abby's - Season PilotI really enjoy the shows that Michael Schur produces. All of them manage to do this thing where the jokes aren’t coming at the expense of any of the characters, but rather comes at the expensive of whatever ridiculous thing they’ve just done. Any time I watch a Michael Schur show, I always leave the episode feeling happier – even if something sad has happened. That’s the joy of Michael Schur’s shows. So, when NBC announced that another show, produced by Schur, would be premiering, I was over the moon. Add in a starring role for Natalie Morales and I’m even more sold. Created by Josh Malmuth and executive produced by Michael Schur, Abby’s is a delightful throwback sitcom, filmed in front of a live audience on (mainly) a single set, that features great writing, even better characters, and a whole lot of laughs.

From Michael Schur and Josh Malmuth comes a hilarious new comedy about the best neighborhood bar in San Diego –– home to low prices, good company and, of course, Abby (Natalie Morales). This unlicensed, makeshift establishment in Abby’s backyard is the perfect gathering place for locals to find camaraderie and sanctuary. To maintain the perfect bar ecosystem, all patrons must abide by a specific set of rules. This includes no cell phones (not even to look something up), understanding that earning a seat at the bar takes time to rise through the hierarchy and knowing that losing a challenge may have some unpleasant and unpalatable drink-related repercussions.

As bar owner, Abby has found her true calling, hosting friends and newcomers alike. No nonsense, Abby is ex-military, having served two tours as a Staff Sergeant in the Marines. Her world is shaken when new landlord Bill (Nelson Franklin), who recently inherited the house from his deceased aunt, unexpectedly shows up citing all kinds of reasons why the whole venture is illegal. Newly divorced, he is a cautious worrier and definite non-risk-taker who eventually warms to the place and agrees to let the bar remain open, provided Abby makes some changes.

The cast of regulars also includes Fred (Neil Flynn), a fixture at the bar who is grateful for a place to enjoy a beer and conversation – and refuses to allow some bureaucratic busybody to disrupt his perfect refuge; Beth (Jessica Chaffin), a harried mom living next door who can escape the madness of her home life while still keeping an eye on things from her perch atop a bar stool; Rosie (Kimia Behpoornia), the bar manager who prides herself on having memorized all 162 rules and regulations; and James (Leonard Ouzts), the gentle scaredy-cat of a bouncer who crumbles in the face of confrontation.

As any regular patron of Abby’s will attest to, hanging out there is a coveted honor. And once you’re in, you’re family.

Abby's - Season PilotThe main thing I thought of while watching the three episodes of Abby’s provided by NBC for review was how much fun I was having while watching them. Everybody in this show brings their A-game and delivers joke after joke that makes you smile broadly from ear-to-ear. Naturally, the star of the show is Natalie Morales – who I last saw in Parks and Recreation, another show helmed by Michael Schur. Here, she is this wonderful mixture of sarcastic, emotional, closed-off, and vulnerable and it’s a great mix. Abby is ex-military and runs a bar out of her backyard because it gives her life some kind of meaning. Morales portrays Abby with a lot of honesty – the character has clearly been impacted by whatever she experienced in the military, but she is also trying her best to move beyond that and live her own life. It’s an interesting dynamic to play in a show as overtly silly as this one and I’m really curious where Morales and the writers go with this element of the character. As the show starts, she tends to keep the bar regulars at arm’s length, never getting too close to them – even if they’d like her to do so. Over the course of the three episodes provided for review, we see Abby soften up some and allow herself to connect with these people who want to be her friends. These moments are sweet and they feel dramatically earned within the arc of the character. It’s clear that Abby is the central character of Abby’s and I’m more than okay with that.

Abby's - Season PilotOn the flip side, unfortunately, is the fact that over those three episodes, we don’t really learn a whole lot about the other regulars at the bar. Episode 1 is mostly dedicated to Abby’s new landlord, Bill. The second episode mostly deals with Abby’s friendship with Beth. The third episode focuses more on Bill and his ex-wife, as well as giving Fred a bit of focus. This leaves characters like Rosie and James sorely lacking in any real character development. Honestly, that’s fairly understandable given the complexities of balancing a six-person cast, trying to give each of them moments to shine in episodes that are only 22 minutes apiece. Having each episode focus on different characters is a smart move from the writers as it gives each member of the main cast their own opportunities to shine. And shine, they do. While only roughly half of them have had enough screentime after three episodes to really make an impression, all of them are excellent. Characters like James and Rosie still feel a bit one-note, but I’m sure as they’re given episodes that focus on them, they will blossom into fully-realized characters in much the same way that characters like Fred and Beth have. But, overall, the cast in this show is excellent. They each know how to perfectly sell a joke and, like Morales’ performance as Abby, each of them brings a layer of honesty to their character that helps ground the show as it gets a bit silly.

Abby'sAll in all, Abby’s is a whole lot of fun. One of my favorite elements about the show is the fact that it’s filmed in front of a live audience on an outdoor set. This gives the whole affair a layer of realism while also harkening back to the sitcoms of yesteryear. Live audiences in sitcoms can often be a whole lot of fun as you can really gauge their reaction in real-time – and their laughter doesn’t feel as hokey as canned laughter does. Plus, having a live audience always forces the actors to bring their A-game as, if they don’t, the audience will immediately let them know. Live audiences bring a unique energy to any performance and that energy is felt throughout Abby’s. Aside from that aspect of the show, Abby’s is just a really well-written and well-performed show. It’s a pretty simple premise, but one that allows for an array of crazy possibilities and character development – two things perfectly demonstrated by the three episodes provided for review. I’m not sure if this show is appointment-TV yet, but it sure is a lot of fun and I’d recommend anybody who’s looking for some good, old-fashioned – yet kindhearted – laughs give the show a shot. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

4.5 out of 5 wands.

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