Mike Schur, the prolific TV producer with The Office, Parks and Rec, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Good Place among his credits, is expanding his empire with a new NBC comedy called Abby's. A superfan of Cheers, executive producer Schur and creator Josh Malmuth take the classic premise — a neighborhood bar where everybody knows your name — and refashions it for a modern era. But despite an iconic formula, an excellent cast, and a practically royal TV lineage, Abby's isn't quite where I want to grab a drink after work.
For Schur fans — which if you've enjoyed a TV comedy in the last decade, you probably are — be warned that Abby's is unlike anything you'd expect from something with his name on it. The breakneck dialogue, the unpredictable visual gags, and the scathing (yet ultimately forgiving) insight into the characters isn't there, and based on the first three screeners sent to critics, that's because of the format.
Much like Cheers, Abby's is a three-camera sitcom shot in front of a live studio audience — the bar set is in lead character Abby's (Natalie Morales) backyard, meaning pretty much the entire show is shot outside. The combination of live audience and the static sets of a multicam setup means that the pacing feels significantly slower than any of Schur's other shows. There's not quite enough room yet for anything other than set-up, joke, and audience applause. And the jokes themselves, perhaps purposefully, are not the kind that take you by surprise or give you a deep understanding of who a character is.
By the end of the first three episodes, each character is still just a loosely sketched 2019 archetype that doesn't really need to be developed in order to understand. There's the grumpy bar owner, the nerdy and awkward landlord and recent adoptee to Abby's, the wine mom, an extremely-single-and-loving-it neighbor, and a bouncer who hates confrontation. All of these people are charming in 23-minute sprints and some have backstories worth delving into (Abby for example, is a bisexual army veteran), but you won't feel compelled to check in on them as frequently as they do with each other. You can see how these relationships will unravel and reknit down the line, and the assurance that the status quo — they'll always have Abby's and Abby will always have them — is comforting in its own way.
All of this isn't to say that live studio audiences or three-camera setups are inherently bad, or make for simple comedies. It is an odd format in an age where most people ingest and process information at the speed of Bachelor Twitter, but as One Day At A Time proved, there's tons of room for character growth, exploration of Important Issues of the Day, and a good old-fashioned punchline with studio applause. But Abby's does't quite show us why it deserves the same kind of attention as ODAAT or any of Schur's other shows. It exists, it's pleasant, and it's good to throw on if you want to turn your brain off for a bit.
The one thing I will say before you write this show off completely is that most of Schur's shows — and comedies in general — really start to gel in Season 2. The Office and Parks and Rec didn't quite seem to understand their main characters until the cast had really gotten into a groove in Season 2. At first Michael Scott (Steve Carrell) was too cruel in an attempt to emulate the UK Office's David Brent (Ricky Gervais), and Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) was too out of touch with her employees like Michael Scott in later seasons. But both of those workplace / hangout comedies grew into themselves because the relationships of the actors began to inform and change the relationships of the characters. Michael Scott lost the edge of cruelty and became well-intentioned and bumbling, even accepted by the time he left Scranton; Leslie Knope became laser-focused not just on her career, but caring for her friends and lifting them up alongside her. Do I even need to bring up the beautiful friendship of Brooklyn Nine-Nine's Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) and Charles Boyle (Joe Lo Truglio) that started as one-note hero worship?
I'd bet good money that Abby's will make a similar turn, and the stellar cast — which includes Neil Flynn and Nelson Franklin — has the comedic chops and chemistry to pull it off. If you're willing to wait around that long, then pull up a barstool and grab a drink at Abby's.
Abby's premieres Thursday, Mar. 28 at 9:30/8:30c on NBC.