Abbott Elementary is Must-See TV
Abbott Elementary, a new half-hour comedy airing on ABC, is funny, relentlessly charming, and even perceptive about the challenges of teaching at an under-resourced urban (Philadelphia) school, and you should absolutely watch it.
Also, Abbott Elementary is so charming that it runs the risk of undermining the very message that runs through every episode: These teachers and students need more help.
The product of creator and star Quinta Brunson, Abbott Elementary is filmed with the same single-camera style as The Office, the action apparently being filmed by an on-site documentary crew, with characters occasionally acknowledging the presence of the camera or even speaking directly to it. In tone, it’s most akin to Parks and Recreation with second-year teacher Janine Teagues, played by Brunson, occupying the Leslie Knope role. Like the Amy Poehler character, Brunson’s dedicated do-gooder sometimes gets ahead of herself but is always saved by the veteran educators, Melissa Schemmenti (Lisa Ann Walter) and Barbara Howard (Sheryl Lee Ralph), who may not have the same spunk on the outside, but remain 100% dedicated to the children of Abbott Elementary.
There is also Jacob (Chris Perfetti), the earnest white guy liberal who is overeager in his efforts to make sure others know he is racially sensitive and worried about the right things, making him both an ally and occasional annoyance to Janine who has no time for performative liberalism. She’s just trying to get things done.
Rounding out the cast is Principal Ava (Janelle James), occupying the Michael Scott role from The Office, the vainglorious person in charge for no good reason (who also sometimes comes through for the team), and Gregory (Tyler James Williams), a first-year teacher with his eye on both a future principal job and Janine.
It is impossible to overstate how winning the whole package is. The writing is sharp, the comedic chemistry and timing of the cast is apparent from the pilot episode, and similar to other feel-good comedies like Parks and Recreation and The Good Place, the viewer becomes invested in the human dynamics at work.
Janine and Gregory are destined to become the next Chidi and Eleanor.
The dilemmas driving the episode plots revolve around the chase for lacking resources.
For example, in the pilot episode, Janine needs a new classroom rug after it was soiled one too many times by a student who couldn’t quite make it to the washroom in time. In a later episode, Janine gets more than she wished for when she enlists Principal Ava’s help to make a TikTok for Barbara (unbeknownst to her) asking the public for classroom supplies.
The demands of the genre require that every episode conclude with the initial dilemma solved and lessons learned by everyone. It is the opposite of Larry David’s famous “no hugging, no learning” mantra, which governed Seinfeld and will be familiar to fans of not just the shows mentioned above, but of others like Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory, as well.
As I hope is clear, I am a fan, and unlike it’s closest comparable, Parks and Recreation, which took five or six episodes to find its footing, it nails the tone and milieu from the get-go. The show does a real service in demonstrating the ethos that drives the vast majority of teachers working in districts where they are not provided the resources necessary to do their jobs, but manage to do those jobs anyway.
At the same time, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t have some questions about the downstream effects of showing how plucky, well-meaning people can overcome systemic problems week after week.
Don’t get me wrong, Abbott Elementary shouldn’t change a thing. The show’s only obligation is to be funny and true to the universe it’s built for itself. But as viewers, I hope we recognize that the problems that exist in schools like Abbott Elementary will not be solved by the indomitable will of the people who work in these schools. That schools can and do continue to function despite neglect does not mean we shouldn’t be doing everything we can to improve conditions.
There are already signs that part of Janine’s journey is to become less idealistic and gung-ho as she journeys toward a more distant (but still caring) view like Melissa and Barbara. Burnout and demoralization are very real consequences of teaching in insufficiently supported environments, and Janine is in for some serious tests of her spirit.
But given the nature of the genre and the audience’s desire for characters to experience some wins, we are unlikely to see an old-school, “very special episode” of Abbott Elementary.
I’m going to continue to enjoy Abbott Elementary as long as it’s on the air, but I think it’s also important to not forget the real-life challenges that can’t be wrapped up at the end of a thirty-minute episode.