"'Abby's' is filmed in front of a live outdoor audience" are the first words spoken in, well, "Abby's," a new multi-camera sitcom premiering Thursday on NBC. The network has not been much invested in filmed-before-a-live-audience multi-camera comedy of late; it prefers the single-camera kind, where the only laughs come from the room you're in. But they do have a history: Counting backward, it was the home of "Friends," "Seinfeld," "Frasier" and, significantly for our present discussion, "Cheers," of which "Abby's," which is also set in a bar and begins when an uptight outsider joins a group of regulars, is in many respects a remake.
That it is filmed, or "filmed," out of doors, at night, is, formally speaking, the least conventional thing about the show, perhaps apart from an unusual number of jokes about alcohol and its effects. Created by Josh Malmuth, a veteran of NBC's "Superstore" and Fox's "New Girl," with "The Good Place" creator Mike Schur as an executive producer, it is a solidly constructed sitcom of the family-by-association sort that does the nation the incidental favor of keeping Natalie Morales and Neil Flynn in public view.
Morales plays the eponymous Abby, a former Marine staff sergeant who illegally runs a bar in her San Diego backyard. Her regulars (and the show's) include Fred (Flynn), who has been on his stool "every night for five hours -- I haven't missed a day in three years" ("Yes, you're the Cal Ripken of low-grade alcoholism," says Abby), and Beth (Jessica Chaffin), who lives next door and is avoiding her family. Working for Abby are bouncer James (Leonard Ouzts), confrontation averse, and Rosie (Kimia Behpoornia), the other person behind the bar, like Woody on "Cheers." Unlike the cast of "Cheers," they come in many colors.
Also unlike “Cheers,” they are wary rather than welcoming of strangers. There’s a “vetting process” for new people and a book of rules, 162 of them, laid down by the proprietor. “But once you're in, you're family,” says Beth. “You never drink alone again."
Into this cozy, somewhat autocratic world, ready for some first-episode disruption, comes Bill (Nelson Franklin), who has inherited the house and yard that Abby rents. In “Cheers” terms, he's the Diane figure – and also the Rebecca figure -- minus the romantic tension. (Abby is bisexual, but Bill is not configured to ever be her type.) He is a nervous sort, whose first impulse is to shut the whole thing down; he doesn't realize yet that he's come to the place where everyone will know his name. Soon enough he will have his own stool, his designated glass and the support of new friends (having lost his old ones in a divorce).
One feels in good hands here, generally, as one waits for the show to shake off the last bits of its chrysalis and for characters to emerge out of characteristics. Chaffin, whose Beth is in some ways the character easiest to dismiss – she keeps an eye on her house from her bar stool so "if I hear screaming or smell something burning in a flash I can… finish my drink and get home," making her, broadly speaking, the Norm – becomes dimensional and sympathetic as soon as the writers give her a chance. But the whole cast pulls its weight.
It's great to see Morales at the head of a show again; I've been following her with interest since her great sci-fi romp "The Middleman," through recurring or regular roles on "Parks and Recreation," "Trophy Wife" and "The Grinder"; she has had a long career of greater and lesser visibility, but still is only 34. Her native caustic, skeptical dryness and air of casual capability fit well here.
I'm happy, too, to see Flynn coming ashore so soon after the scuttling of "The Middle," and not so far from Mike Heck, the creature of habit he played there, if a little cheerier. Fred’s declaration that “these are tough days for America, the country is deeply divided -- the only thing we can agree on is drinking alcohol” is a sentiment Mike might endorse.
The pilot, typically, presents a show finding its footing in front of an audience, with its quirkiest quirks pushed forward in order to establish a vibe and a history. There is a pile of books to look up facts and settle questions, because there's a "no phones" rule. There is a fact-check challenge, announced by hitting one of those hotel-desk call bells; the loser has to drink “a sugary, disgusting, lime-flavored not-beer." Fred calls Abby "Sarge," to her annoyance, but this will pass.
As with all new multi-camera sitcoms, you can practically taste the canned laughter at first; and the fact that it is happening in the open air makes the laughter sound even more artificial, which has the strange effect of making the show seem less funny than it is. This, too, will pass, or at least you will no longer notice it. I am telling you to stick around.
Each of the three episodes I've seen obeys the Aristotelian unities of action, time and place, commercial breaks notwithstanding, transpiring in real time and moving no farther from the backyard set than Abby's living room. Whatever bad vibes invade this sanctum are conquered and packed away within the 22 minutes that constitute a commercial half-hour. It is not a serial adventure, but a place where everybody stays the same.
When: 9:30 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-PG-V (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for violence)