Cheers for a millennial audience? A three-camera sitcom that you can laugh at without feeling guilty? Sounds great! Sam Brooks reviews Abby’s, which you can watch on Lightbox right here.
“Abby’s is filmed in front of a live outdoor audience.”
Perhaps unintentionally, the disclaimer that begins every episode of Abby reflects the two-pronged strength of the show. On one hand, it’s something extremely traditional: a three-camera sitcom. That is, something that is generally shot on a soundstage in front of a studio audience with three cameras. Think Friends, Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory. The easiest way to recognise a three camera sitcom, honestly, is the laugh track.
On the other hand, Abby’s is a slight but significant twist on the three-camera format. It’s nothing revolutionary, but its point of difference – its bruised millennial heart – is enough to make it special.
Let’s travel back in time for a minute, back to when three-camera sitcoms were the height of the genre, critically and culturally. While the biggest comedy in the world right now is still a three-camera sitcom, hey The Big Bang Theory, you’d be hard-pressed to call it critically beloved or even culturally beloved. It’s the epitome of 7:30pm television, the thing you keep on after the thing you turned the TV on for has finished. Bazinga, indeed. I’m not talking about The Big Bang Theory, or any Chuck Lorre comedy really.
I’m taking us back in time to Friends. The success of that series is undisputable, but it’s important to remember why it was such a huge phenomenon; rather than being focussed on a highly specific concept or location, it instead set its sights on six friends in their 20s. There was no true protagonist or central character, just seemingly endless combinations of the main six to provide the laughs, and the heart. While the show hasn’t aged particularly well, it can be hard to forget that people really, really loved Friends, and for good reason: it depicted young people hanging out and making mistakes. It felt real and relatable.
Actually, a better reference point for Abby’s is not Friends, but Cheers. Executive producer Michael Schur, who created the beloved-by-the-internet shows Parks and Recreation and The Good Place, has a well-documented love for the 80s sitcom about the regulars at a Boston bar. And fair enough! Cheers is, if not the epitome of the three-camera sitcom form, then definitely the show that took the genre from its wacky, high-concept 80s form into the more mature, grounded comedy of the 90s.
The main reference point for Abby’s is absolutely, shamelessly, Cheers. Hell, even the location is the same. Abby (Natalie Morales) runs a bar in her own backyard, and most of the action plays out on this sprawling, real-life set. In the pilot episode, her landlord Bill (Nelson Franklin) tries to get her to shut it down, but of course there’s no plot without a bar so she convinces him to let her stay open. Her friends-slash-regulars round out the cast; the Curmudgeon™ Fred (Neil Flynn, from Scrubs), her deadpan neighbour Beth (Jessica Chaffin, most famous for being Ronna of Ronna and Beverly), her bouncer James (Leonard Ouzts) and her bar-back Rosie (Kimia Behpoornia).
Watching Abby’s makes you realise the strengths of the three-camera sitcom – its inherently relaxed energy. It combines the best of theatre with the best of TV; it allows the cast members to develop a true chemistry with each other, rather than being locked into the shot-reverse shot that characterises so much single-camera comedy. Seeing actors with the warmth of Natalie Morales and Neil Flynn react to each other in the moment, rather than being split apart in the editing room, is like wrapping your hands around a warm cup of coffee and taking a big long sip.
Our most critically acclaimed and buzz-hogging comedies – Arrested Development, The Office, 30 Rock, Veep – tend to be single-camera, and while that form has its own strengths and room for experimentation, Abby’s gets a lot of mileage from its point of difference. Even being filmed outside, at night, gives the show an ambience that is rare among its contemporaries. When the light catches the set just right, it looks like Golden Dawn (RIP) at its best.
That warmth carries over to the plotting of Abby’s. Episodes don’t try to do anything big – early on there’s an episode that lightly touches on Abby’s bisexuality and anther that loosely explores her estranged relationship with her father. It’s a tremendously relaxing show to watch, while the writing and performances are sharp enough to keep you engaged.
The highlight in particular here is Natalie Morales, who has spent the last decade being a black light beam of sardonic energy in whatever sitcom she deigns to appear in, most famously as Tom’s girlfriend Lucy in Park and Recreation. Abby, a former Marine, is a great role for Morales, allowing her to build up an embittered front, and yet pull out layers of heart from underneath it. You get why she’s the way she is, but also why people want to hang out with her.
Even when the show gets heavier –and I’m using ‘heavy’ in a relative sense here, there’s no Red Weddings in this show –Morales splits the difference. She pays due respect to Abby’s darker side while never diving too deep into the character’s darkness. It’s the kind of performance you need to anchor a show like this – especially given the wackier, heightened performances of the ensemble cast – and it’s a challenge that Morales is more than up to.
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One of the unfortunate things about some of those older sitcoms is that despite their inviting energy, they’re unmistakable products of their time. Again, Friends wasn’t super progressive, you guys. Comedy ages faster than an avocado at the back of your pantry, and it can be hard to look back at something you loved even ten years ago and realise how gross it actually was.
In the best way, Abby’s is a product of our time. It’s a throwback to a style – one that has worked for a long time, and can still pay dividends – but it infuses that style with a new sensibility and sensitivity that only deepens the humour. The best parts of the show happen when it uses the inviting, relaxing warmth of its genre to allow its cast of messy characters to blossom, and to allow an audience to share in the fun with them. There’s not a single mean bone in Abby’s body, but there’s maybe a few bitter ones. That fact, combined with a winning cast, makes Abby’s appointment television.
You know, just like back when we used to have appointment television.
You can watch the first three episodes of Abby’s on Lightbox right here. Episodes drop weekly on Fridays.
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