I have now given ABC’s Whiskey Cavalier and NBC’s Abby’s 10 and 6 episodes, respectively, and I think it’s fair to say that neither of these series is ever going to ascend beyond mediocrity. They’re neither good nor terrible, and while neither series is worth investing in from the beginning, the cast of both series is good enough to drag me to their inevitable finish lines (both shows have two episodes remaining, and I see little reason to give either a second season).
This is particularly painful in the case of Abby’s, which I’d had high hopes for considering that Michael Schur is an exec producer on the series. It comes from creator Josh Malmuth, however, and while the premise is intriguing — basically Cheers set in an outdoor bar in front of a live audience — the comedy hasn’t been able to break free of its broad, laugh-track trappings. The cast — Neil Flynn, Natalie Morales, and Nelson Franklin — is great, as evidenced by their prior work, but the writing has given us no reason to invest in them. They’re delivering punchlines, but the characters themselves have not evolved beyond their pilot characterizations. There’s no real hook here, either, and while Abby’s is easy enough to watch, there’s no evidence to suggest that it has the capacity to grow into a Parks and Rec or Brooklyn Nine-Nine kind of comedy (as opposed to Bless This Mess on ABC, which has already significantly improved upon its bland pilot). To do so would require that Abby’s take a few risks with its writing, but it seems content to operate as though it’s trying to please network executives instead of an audience, hopping from one joke to the next without any consideration for the characters delivering them.
Likewise, Whiskey Cavalier can occasionally get by on the charms of its cast (Scott Foley, Lauren Cohan, Ana Ortiz, Tyler James Williams, Josh Hopkins), but the show continues to step all over the characters. It reminds me of that Adam Scott and Craig Robinson show a couple of years back, Ghosted, which would have been a great workplace comedy if the show didn’t focus so much on the work. Whiskey Cavalier, meanwhile, might operate better as a half-hour sitcom if it shed the spy missions. There’s good chemistry between the cast when they’re not otherwise preoccupied with shoot-out and fight-sequences, but there’s barely enough time to spend on their interplay because there’s always a vaguely European character to kill. It doesn’t help, either, that there are no stakes involved. After 10 episodes, we know how every episode will end: With the gang back at the bar clinking glasses and celebrating a win.
Cavalier also has a terrible habit of using exposition to establish emotional characterization. The show is barely even about the spy missions that preoccupy most of the runtime; it’s about how the characters bond, which I know because all they ever talk about is trying to bond or how they’ll never bond, before then bonding. But that’s all it ever is: Talk. Even when there is an occasional authentic moment, the show steps all over it with a bad joke (see e.g., last week’s episode, when a minor character was killed, and the team got all of 45 seconds to grieve before the writers thought, ‘Oh shit. We’re a comedy. Unleash the puns! We don’t want to bum anyone out.”) Whiskey Cavalier is basically the This Means War of television shows: A great cast, but completely empty and soulless.
And it’s a shame with regard to both series because each featured premieres with some potential. Unfortunately, neither has made good on that potential, opting instead to repeatedly remake variations of their bland pilot episodes.