One of television’s most dynamic shifts in recent years is the trend away from multi-camera sitcoms; it really wasn’t long ago when the big four networks still aired three or four laugh track-backed premieres every fall – even TBS was still airing comedies shot in front of live audiences as recently as 2015. Those shows just don’t exist anymore, save for the few remaining CBS sitcoms still in production (of which Mom is the only one worth watching), and the recently-canceled One Day at a Time on Netflix, the multi-cam sitcom is all but forgotten. Even NBC has backed away from the format in recent years, letting the Will & Grace reboot awkwardly exist in its lineup, sandwiched between reality shows and any number of forgettable dramas. With Abby’s, however, NBC has a chance to breathe some life into the dying genre, with a pleasant, unassuming pilot with a lot of hidden potential.
The current landscape of television is desperately missing the kind of show Abby’s contains the potential to become.
Created by New Girl and Superstore producer Josh Malmuth (with a pilot directed by How I Met Your Mother alum Pamela Fryman), Abby’s is refreshingly low-key, set entirely in the back yard of the titular character’s home (and filmed outdoors, an interesting wrinkle on the live studio setting), featuring a cast of predictably misfit supporting characters. There’s nobody particularly engaging in the supporting crew, but in the pilot episode, there’s really no room to be; just seeing talents like Neil Flynn, Nelson Franklin, and star Natalie Morales explore their chemistry is plenty enough to carry Abby’s through its initial 22-minute offering, a promising mix of experienced talent and newcomers that immediately displays the potential to grow into a great hangout comedy, with the right scripts behind the performances.
Whether Abby’s has a perfunctory plot (it does) or not isn’t important; it sounds strange, but sitcom pilots are all about how they feel. Written and focus-grouped to the point of near suffocation, most pilots of this particular dying breed are never about ingenious jokes or exciting premises; it’s all about seeing how the pieces fit together on stage for the first time, putting the performers together in a petri dish that just so happens to be canonical. Within the first half of the 13-episode first season, Abby’s basic rhythms and recurring jokes are bound to change, which puts all the pressure in developing an audience on the chemistry at the show’s core.
Thankfully, this is where Abby’s shines; the rapport between characters feels lived in, with relationships between characters that actually feel a bit developed. At times, it reminds of pilots like Undateable or even Happy Endings, with a mix of shared backstories that gives the show’s extremely contained universe some much-needed contour. Filmed on specific set, with not a single external drama available to develop, Abby’s pilot is a pressure cooker for its talent – and while the result is slightly bland, the ingredients are all in place, especially with characters like Abby (whose personality is actually pretty strongly developed in the pilot, despite its adherence to formula), Fred (Flynn) and Beth (Jessica Chaffin) at its core.
Inevitably, Abby’s will be compared to Cheers – they both take place in bars, and both center on a bar owner looking for a new direction in their lives, with her equally fucked up friends guiding her way. Where the comparison may really be apt, however, is how Cheers slowly grasped its potential through its low-rated first season: the pieces were all there, but it took a considerable amount of time for everything to click. With only thirteen episodes, Abby’s won’t be afforded the same amount of time to grow; and if the show’s unable to introduce some more dynamic elements to its plots and jokes, the pilot will be remembered as a harbinger of unrealized potential – the foundation for a mediocre comedy is neatly in place, after all, after the fairly conventional pilot.
But I keep coming back to the feel of Abby’s first episode: watching the cast interact and fall in sync with each other, offers an exciting proposition to update one of television’s most enduring, comfortably familiar formats. The current landscape of television is desperately missing the kind of show Abby’s contains the potential to become: 22 minutes of pure relaxation TV, the opportunity to hang out with a group of characters on a show that doesn’t have something to prove, or feels the need to justify its presence in this crowded television landscape. There’s something meditative to the qualities of a traditional network sitcom – and while Abby’s may never become a transcendent experience (or even an actual good show), there’s a hint of something special at the core of this show, a glimmer of hope for the fading genre to reclaim some of its old glory as part of NBC’s once-lauded Thursday night line up. Time may prove me wrong, but I’ll be sticking with Abby’s, to see if this show can harness its many promising elements into something memorable.