New sitcom “Abby’s” starts with the interesting announcement that the show was filmed in front of a live outdoor audience. But while shooting the show live and outside (and in a multi-camera format) gives the show a distinctive look and pacing, that’s not what makes the show a milestone for LGBT representation and inclusion.
The show is historic because it’s the first sitcom with a bisexual female lead that’s played by an out actress. It premieres on Thursday, March 28 at 9:39 p.m. on NBC following “Will & Grace.”
Natalie Morales plays Abby, a former Marine Staff Sergeant who served two tours of duty in Afghanistan. When she returns to civilian life, she decides to set up a neighborhood bar in her backyard. Although the patrons are bound by an elaborate set of 162 rules and regulations (ranging from no cell phones to a rigorous vetting process before they can get a coveted seat at the bar), the bar becomes a popular hangout.
That’s all established in the first episode (of the three episodes available for press preview).
In the second episode, the audience learns that Abby is bisexual and meets one of her former girlfriends Dani (Cyrina Fiallo), a representative from one of the liquor companies. Abby’s sexuality is not an issue for her patrons, but one of the regulars, Beth (Jessica Chaffin) is upset that Abby never told her about her three-month relationship with Dani.
Morales publicly came out as queer in 2017 before embarking on the press tour for “Battle of the Sexes.” The movie smoothly wove together lesbian icon Billie Jean King’s coming-out story with a stunning recreation of her famous tennis match against self-proclaimed male chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs. Morales played Rosie Casals, the professional tennis player who countered Howard Cosell’s casual sexism when the two provided on-air commentary on the legendary game.
Morales’ breakout role was Wendy Watson on the 2008 cult favorite “The Middleman.” Since then, she’s had lead or featured roles in “Parks and Recreation,” “Trophy Wife,” the “90210” reboot, “The Grinder” and “Girls.”
She’s also delighted LGBT audiences with her performances on “Santa Clarita Diet” and “BoJack Horseman.” On the former, she plays Deputy Anne Garcia who begins a romantic relationship with her partner’s wife after he goes missing. On the latter, she voiced Yolanda Buenaventura, a light pink axolotl who comes out as asexual during her relationship with BoJack’s sidekick Todd (who also comes out as asexual).
Now she’s breaking new ground on network television with a fine performance as Abby. With sure-fire comic timing, Morales is delightful when she lobs quips across the screen and engages in comic banter with her colleagues. Although Abby can be gruff and abrasive, Morales also displays deep sensitivity when Abby talks about the bar as a “community center” for her oddball neighbors and growing up as a bisexual Cuban teen with an alcoholic father.
Overall, series creator Josh Malmuth surrounds Abby with a strong supporting cast. In addition to Chaffin, who plays a harried mom who keeps an eye on her sons from her barstool, the cast includes sitcom veteran Neil Flynn (“Scrubs” and “The Middle”) as a long-time family friend and Nelson Franklin as Abby’s new landlord. The lead cast is rounded out by Leonard Ouzts and Kimia Behpoornia whose characters will hopefully be further developed in later episodes.
While “Abby’s” is a milestone for LGBT representation and inclusion, the early episodes sometimes feel like a more diverse reboot of the classic sitcom “Cheers” which premiered on NBC in 1982. But, anchored by the talented Morales, the new show is funny and fast-paced and should age well, unlike the allspice vodka the characters are forced to drink in the second episode.