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'Abby's' review: Congenial sitcom with a big gimmick

Natalie Morales as Abby, Jessica Chaffin as

 Natalie Morales as Abby, Jessica Chaffin as Beth, Neil Flynn as Fred in NBC's "Abby's." Photo Credit: NBC/Chris Haston

COMEDY “Abby’s”

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Thursday at 9:30 p.m. on NBC/4

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Abby’s is a bar where everyone knows your name — and it’s also highly illegal. This makeshift saloon is in the backyard of Abby’s (Natalie Morales, “Parks and Recreation”) San Diego apartment building, also run by Abby. A tough-talking former Marine who's bisexual, Abby has very strict rules. One of 'em – no cellphones at the bar itself, which means patrons can’t Google answers to settle drunken debates. There are a few regulars who have become so regular they’ve earned permanent seats at that coveted bar: Fred (Neil Flynn, "The Middle," "Scrubs"), Beth (Jessica Chaffin, “Veep”) and James (stand-up comic Leonard Ouzts). The largely catatonic Skip – veteran actor Patrick Gorman – hasn’t quite made it to the bar yet, but instead seems to live in a recliner a few feet away. 

One day, the owner of the building, Bill (Nelson Franklin, “Veep”) turns up to find an illegal bar set up on his property. But he’s recently divorced and has no where else to go. Soon enough, he’s a regular, too.

Meanwhile, “Abby’s” — produced by Michael Schur, David Miner and Josh Malmuth (“Superstore”) — has this singular difference: It’s believed to be the first sitcom in TV history taped outdoors before a live audience.

MY SAY Set a network sitcom, circa 1982, in a bar and watch the world cheer. Set a network sitcom, circa 2019, in a bar and watch the world go “whaaa?”

 The obvious objections are best listed: Liver cirrhosis, diabetes, alcohol abuse, drunken driving.

 There’s nothing funny about drinking, and certainly nothing funny about a mass-audience TV show that would seem, at least superficially, to endorse it. Moreover, if we chose to look back at “Cheers” from our enlightened 2019 perch, there was a dark side to that enterprise as well. Back then we chose to dismiss it because “Cheers,” after all, was and easily remains one of the best sitcoms in TV history.

Clearly Schur, Miner and Malmuth loved “Cheers” and clearly wanted to honor its glorious spirit (clearly pun intended) but how? Their solution was ingenious: Set the bar outside.

 There’s something about being outside that instantly takes the edge off this sitcom, while diffusing those above objections — if “outside” is just off the Universal lot and not Central Park in January, in which case, good luck getting a cast or audience, or at least a sane, sober one.

Being outside takes everything down a notch, specifically the artificiality of the most artificial of all the popular arts — the sitcom. The audience laughter seems to drift off into the night; in the confines of the studio, it’s amped up, almost to the point of desperation. There’s an ambient world just off screen — a real world of cars, and birds, and squirrels and planes. Suddenly the sitcom-as-sitcom doesn’t feel so inaccessible, but approachable. There’s a looser, jauntier vibe, almost like a party.

 None of this would matter if all the other basics — acting, writing, direction — were slop. But they’re not with “Abby’s.” This is a good sitcom with a first-rate cast and some real talent behind the scenes. Legendary director, Betty Thomas, for example directs the third episode. It all flows along easily, gently, pleasurably. No messages are imparted, neither anger nor edge lurk beneath the surface. “Abby’s” knows exactly what it wants to do and largely succeeds — remind viewers what it was like, all those years ago, to enjoy “Cheers” without any of the attendant guilt or sense of outrage that our 2019 selves might otherwise bring to this.

 Does “Abby’s” implicitly endorse drinking? It’s set in a bar. Draw your own conclusions. But it’s also realistic enough to know that people drink, and that alcohol — for better or more likely ill — is the drug of choice in these bitterly conflicted times. Flynn's Fred has the best or at least funniest line on this matter: “The country is deeply divided. The only thing we can agree on is drinking.”

BOTTOM LINE Congenial sitcom set in the great outdoors where everything — even or especially a sitcom — seems just a little bit better.

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