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The Baristas

on Tue, 03/08/2011 - 00:00

The Baristas
In the annals of television sitcoms, the NBC comedy Cheers ranks among the all-time classics. With the simple premise of womanizing Sam Malone and uptight intellectual Diane Chambers working side-by-side in the Boston bar that bears the name of the series, Cheers provided more than its fair share of laughs as it not only explored the relationship of the two lead characters but the lives of its exceptional ensemble cast as well. Although the setting for The Baristas is a coffee shop instead of a bar, the java-based web series is more akin to Cheers in both style and substance than other NBC sitcoms that have utilized similar locations, including Central Perk on Friends and Café Nervosa on Frasier.

Like Cheers, for instance, The Baristas begins with an unexpected new addition to the staff of the Affogato coffee shop in which the series takes place. Whereas Diane Chambers was unceremoniously dumped by her fiancé in the pilot episode of the NBC sitcom—leaving her alone and desperate for employment—recently engaged Ben (Will McMahon) suddenly finds himself unemployed and in need of a job on The Baristas. Since Ben’s soon-to-be wife’s sister is the long-suffering girlfriend of Affogato manager Sam (Shaun Starke), he is able to join the staff of the establishment and partake in their ongoing humorous interactions with the small but entertaining regular clientele of Affogato.

The Baristas was created by former Pittsburgh resident Justin Kownacki as a spin-off to his successful web series Something to Be Desired, which premiered online in 2003 and ran for six seasons. Although many of the characters from Something to Be Desired are part of the cast on The Baristas, the newer creation effectively re-introduces them and is enjoyable in its own right in much the same way as Cheers spin-off Frasier.

While there are no Sam Malones or Diane Chambers-like leads for the various episodes to focus on, the ensemble cast of the web series shines nonetheless with its own amalgamation of co-workers and regular customer that complement the narratives just as Carla Tortelli, Woody Boyd, Norm Peterson and Cliff Clavin did on Cheers.

In addition to the struggling-to-keep-the-coffee-shop-afloat Sam and the always optimistic Ben, the staff at Affogato includes the bitter yet efficient Dierdre (Lacey Fleming), additional newbie Reggie (Aki Jamal), the perpetually chipper Madison (Jillian Vitko) and the likewise upbeat Gary (Joel Ambrose).

They are joined during the episodes by Ben’s best friend Chase (Justin Mohr), a successful business school graduate with a snobbish attitude; Astrid (Laura Lee Brautigam), an artist who has been dating Sam for six years with no end in sight; Gary’s significant other Scott (Hamilton Berube); Ben’s controlling fiancé Aubrey (Katie Mo Goff); wannabe writer and decaf-drinking Glenn (Rick Hertzig); Vanity Press publisher Rich (Erik Schark) and his second-in-command Tabitha (Courtney Jenkins); and egocentric author Leo (Will Guffey).

Despite such a large cast, The Baristas does an effective job of utilizing the characters throughout the various episodes and allowing them to shine in their own unique and humorous ways. The narratives of each installment, meanwhile, feature sitcom-worthy storylines that develop and build as the episode rolls along while the scripts are filled with numerous one-liners that keep the comedy percolating. The main plots are likewise complimented with side-bar and secondary scenes that further pack each episode—an amazing feat considering the six-to-seven minute length of each installment.

The third episode of the series, entitled “Game Night,” is a perfect example. In order to attract new customers and thus potentially increase their work hours, Ben and Madison decide to organize theme nights at Affogato. Their first attempt attracts—as Dierdre phrases it—“three virgins playing Dungeons & Dragons.” The trio of new females draws the attention of the male regulars of the establishment, however, including publisher Rick who has apparently never played D&D before.

In a separate subplot, meanwhile, Sam steals rolls of toilet paper from various nearby gas stations when the coffee shop restrooms run out of the necessity, leaving girlfriend Astrid to ditch the truck that spotted them. The two divergent narratives eventually merge into a discussion of X-Men films, a misguided bet and cash stolen from the tip jar.

Like Boston with Cheers, or even New York City with Friends and Seattle with Frasier, The Baristas pays homage to its setting of Pittsburgh throughout many of the episodes. Affogato, for instance, was once an actual coffee shop in the region and Pittsburgh City Councilman William Peduto makes a brief appearance at the beginning of “The Competition.”

In the episode “St. Patrick’s Day,” meanwhile, references to the city’s tradition of celebrating the holiday in Market Square are made, as well as remarks regarding other establishments in the area. “By the time we get to the South Side, all the drunk secretaries are going to be sober enough to want to make small talk again,” Chase muses about the notoriously bar-heavy neighborhood.

Justin Kownacki was a pioneer in the online video medium when he launched Something to Be Desired in 2003. The long-running web series attracted a large fanbase as well as critical acclaim and was even a Yahoo! Video Awards nominee for “Best Series” in 2008. With The Baristas, Kownacki has not only created a worthy spin-off to Something to Be Desired, but a genuine comedy classic that is capable of standing on its own merits.

The Baristas contains all of the ingredients necessary for a quality web series—well-developed characters, top-notch acting, tight scripts and entertaining narratives. Add the coffee shop setting into the mix, and the sitcom is indeed a Cheers-like destination where viewers can ultimately feel glad they visited.

Anthony Letizia

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