'Abby's' on NBC takes the beloved 'Cheers' model and puts a diverse — if fairly safe — spin on it

With Netflix casually offing “One Day at a Time,” more channels need to be willing to modernize the classic sitcom format.
Abby's - Season Pilot
The gang's all here on the set of NBC's new comedy "Abby's."Justin Lubin / NBC
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By Ani Bundel

Netflix may have canceled the “One Day at a Time” reboot after three brief seasons, but the strategy of taking an old school series and remaking it for a new generation with a diverse cast — as ODAAT did — seems to be sticking around. Now a broadcast channel responsible for so many of those classic sitcoms is trying its own hand at updating the genre. Enter “Abby’s,” which premieres on Thursday on NBC.

“Abby’s” is the latest show from producer Mike Schur, a name which most people don’t recognize (yet) but should. This is the man who brought viewers the Americanized version of “The Office,” then went on to produce “Parks and Recreation” followed by two of the most beloved series on TV right now, “Brooklyn 99” and “The Good Place.” His latest venture stars Natalie Morales — a “Parks and Rec” recurring character — as the titular Abby, a Cuban-American Army veteran who opens a neighborhood watering hole in her backyard.

The first thing the “Abby’s” showrunners want you to know is that even though it’s a half-hour comedy set in a bar, this is not “Cheers.”

The first thing the “Abby’s” showrunners want you to know is that even though it’s a half-hour comedy set in a bar, this is not “Cheers.” And to be fair, there are differences. “Cheers” for one thing, was actually a bar. “Abby’s” is the backyard of the rental property the character is living in. It doesn’t have a liquor license, it doesn’t have insurance and if the prices are anything to go by, no one is paying a food and beverage tax. (Abby’s landlord Bill, played by Nelson Franklin, decides in the opening episode to overlook these details.)

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And as every PR missive on the show proudly boasts, this show is the first in history to be filmed in front of a live audience outdoors, taking advantage of Los Angeles’ traditionally mild weather pattern. Let’s hope, if the show is still going in a few years, the weather continues to hold.

But the “filmed in front of a live audience outdoors” mantra recited at the top of every episode sums up the show’s aesthetic more perfectly than it means to. It’s the same old-school premise that worked for generations on broadcast TV, dressed up with new details made possible by 21st-century social norms and technology.

For example, the live audience forces the show into the old comedic rhythms familiar to anyone who has ever watched a 1970s sitcom rerun: set-up to punchline to laugh — and then pause for applause. The jokes are similarly predictable, if not necessarily unfunny. For example, the opening that introduces co-star Neil Flynn as Fred (the Norm of this not-“Cheers” world) begins with his deadpan pronouncement that he hasn’t missed a night in three years, followed by Abby snapping back that he’s “the Cal Ripken of alcoholics.” The audience guffaws on cue.

Not only do we have an actress of Cuban descent who has openly identified as queer headlining a show, she’s casually surrounded by a diverse cast.

Also, nothing bad happens at “Abby’s,” at least not in the early episodes given to reviewers; every problem is one that can be solved in under 22 minutes. In this way, it’s a show that could easily have aired on NBC in 1979 or 1989. “Abby’s” basically argues that just because it’s 2019 doesn’t mean anything’s really changed.

But of course, everything has changed, starting with Natalie Morales as the lead. Not only do we have an actress of Cuban descent who has openly identified as queer headlining a show, she’s casually surrounded by a diverse cast that would have once been thoughtlessly straight and white a decade (or three) ago. This is America, portrayed as an open-hearted, capitalist, watering hole melting pot. It's the kind of place where as long as you’re here and your money is good, you’re family.

Abby is not just Cuban-American; she's a veteran of Afghanistan and bisexual to boot, a first for broadcast comedy. The series clearly wants to be seen as progressive, and has included many of the identity markers of modernity. But it’s also the kind of show they don’t make anymore, both for good and ill. People watched “Cheers” because it was funny, because they wanted to see Sam and Diane get together and because they were invested in the lives of likable people you wanted to be friends with in real life.

“Abby’s” is going for that too, but with a looser plot to sustain it. Nothing much happens, and the show doesn't seem too concerned about it. This sort of thing has worked for the single-camera style of series that came into vogue over the last decade. (“New Girl,” which is where series creator Josh Malmuth worked for several seasons, comes to mind.) But it also makes it harder to immediately sell the show to audiences. Back in the “Cheers” era, networks had the luxury of letting shows run until they took off. As the last decade's many half-season attempts will tell you, that’s just not the case anymore.

It doesn’t help that the jokes are, on the whole, corny and predictable. But then again, to watch old “Cheers” episodes today is to watch well-worn tropes. That doesn’t make it necessarily bad, in fact, there’s something oddly comforting about it. But for a show debuting in 2019, there are times when the humor could come from less expected places.

On the other hand, Morales has a strong following after years of playing second and third fiddle on various shows, and there are many who want to see her succeed. And Schur has a solid track record for shows that develop and grow into long-running hits. With Netflix casually offing “One Day at a Time” for not conforming to the service’s algorithmic demands, there’s a need for more channels to fill the void with diverse takes on the kinds of series that have historically stood the test of time. “Abby’s” is a good start.