Review: ‘Cheers’-Inspired Sitcom ‘Abby’s’ Gets Off to a Wobbly Start

'Abby's' Episode 102. (Photo by: Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

Abby’s, NBC’s new Thursday night sitcom starring Natalie Morales, kicks off by letting its audience know it’s filmed “before a live outdoor audience.” It’s a choice that’s charming, but ultimately amounts to little. Unfortunately, that sets the tone for all of Abby’s pilot episode.

The show’s premise is straightforward: Abby, a marine and professional bartender, runs a bar in the backyard of her San Diego home. Here, Abby reigns supreme, even drafting over 100 rules for patrons to follow. That all risks getting turned upside-down with the arrival of Abby’s new landlord, Bill, who isn’t too pleased that she’s operating an illegal bar on his property. Abby’s patrons rally around her, convincing Bill to give her a chance and getting a stubborn Abby to meet Bill halfway.

Much of the show’s early press has focused around its star, Morales, and the fact that she is among the first Cuban-American female leads on a television sitcom (Lucie Arnaz, Elizabeth Peña, Joanna Garcia, Melissa Fumero, and the women of ¿Qué Pasa USA? are among her groundbreaking peers), as well as one of very few openly bisexual Latinas on television.

ABBY’S — “Pilot” Episode — Pictured: (l-r) Natalie Morales as Abby, Neil Flynn as Fred — (Photo by: Justin Lubin/NBC)
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Although the pilot makes no mention of Abby’s ethnicity or orientation, Morales told NPR that these will be woven into future episodes. “If I’m representing anything,” she told Weekend Edition Sunday’s, Lulu Garcia-Navarro, “it’s the idea that I can be whoever I am in public, right? And I think it is a huge, huge deal to have a lead character of a television show be bisexual on the show, and especially the fact that the show isn’t about that. It is — her sexuality is just a part of her like it is a part of all of us.”

While it’s never fair to judge a series by its pilot, one hopes Abby’s eventually rises to the expectations set by this particular spotlight. As it stands, the series’ pilot relies heavily on telling versus showing, having its ensemble cast insist on Abby’s fortitude, tenacity, and loyalty without giving the character a chance to show us. Mostly, it leaves Abby equal parts angry and sulky that her new landlord opposes the operation of an illegal backyard bar on his dead aunt’s property. That’s not, unfortunately, much of a hook. It’s also not the best use of the deadpan delivery and innate comedic timing Morales has displayed previously on shows like Parks and Recreation and Santa Clarita Diet.

ABBY’S — “Pilot” Episode — Pictured (l-r) Natalie Morales as Abby, Jessica Chaffin as Beth, Nelson Franklin as Bill, Neil Flynn as Fred — (Photo by: Chris Haston/NBC)
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And that’s an overlooked downside that comes with lack of media representation: the hesitation to let a project give us just another mediocre first episode. There is a real fear that those with the power to make decisions, be it at networks like NBC or streaming services like Netflix, see these series and their stars as gambles, as experiments whose outcomes could determine the future of any queer and/or Latinx-influenced programming and casting choices to come. That reality is partially why the fan response to One Day at a Time’s cancellation, for example, moved beyond the usual disappointment that a beloved show had not been renewed. It’s a luxury and a privilege to see a show flail without fearing that it will have a seismic impact on the way any representation of Latinidad is seen in media, or whether it is seen at all.

The call for greater representation exists not only so that people can see mirror images of themselves reflected back on a screen, but so that we, as viewers, can enjoy new stories and different lenses through which to view and understand the world. And, indeed, the more stories and experiences and representations of any identity we see in media, the less it matters that one show thrives or fails.

Which is all to say: Abby’s pilot is not very good. And it would be great if that didn’t matter quite so much.

Abby’s airs Thursdays on NBC at 9:30 p.m.