Quinta Brunson | ABC
Quinta Brunson | ABC
The American version of Office certainly wasn’t the first TV show to feature characters breaking the fourth wall and staring at the camera, but it’s probably the most ubiquitous. Jim and Stanley and Pam’s reaction snaps were immortalized in GIFs that still populate streams, and few shows featured moments that could possibly supplant this series. in this particular version of meme-ability. Parks and recreation, may be. Occasionally, modern family. But there’s a newcomer to the neighborhood scratching that itch: ABC’s wonderful new sitcom Abbott Elementary School, which began airing in early December on Tuesday nights. (For cable cutters, it stream on Hulu.)
The series created by and starring Quinta Brunson, whom you may know best from HBO A dark lady sketch show or his internet presence— breathed new life into a format that may have been dead: the network’s dummy sitcom. For viewers who may be tired of their persistent rewatches of the aforementioned shows on streaming services, Abbott Elementary School hits those notes, and then some, accomplishing the rare feat of bringing a Twitter-savvy audience back, more likely to tweet about HBO dramas than anything on a broadcast channel, from the comfort of the Big Four.
In Abbott, Brunson plays Janine Teagues, a passionate second-grade teacher at an underfunded public school in Philadelphia. While her colleagues are either jaded by the problems of institutions or on the verge of burnout, Janine is optimistic about the idea of changing things from within, sometimes in an almost illusory way. (If we talk about her TV ancestry, she has a bit of Leslie Knope’s vision and fervor for her work, minus the fetishization of Obama-era politicians.)
Janine also occupies a fascinating place in her little universe. She’s from Philadelphia, so she’s not one of the Teach for America intruders who Abbott Elementary School parodies – benefactors from outside communities who, after graduating from expensive liberal arts colleges, teach for a few years at an underprivileged school before fleeing for more lucrative jobs. As Jacob, Chris Perfetti fits that mold more, constantly throwing references to his resume and turning into Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society when Abbott briefly establishes a gifted program. But at the same time, Janine has a hope that some of her fellow educators have long since given up.
A series like Abbott is only as good as its set, and Brunson has put together an amazing one. Sheryl Lee Ralph, the Tony nominee who was part of the original Broadway cast dream girls, is Barbara Howard, the stern veteran whom Janine always tries to impress as if she were one of her students. Millennials will rejoice to hear that Chessie from The parent trap, aka Lisa Ann Walter, is there as Melissa Schemmenti, the tough Italian broad from South Philly who can get whatever she wants in the back of the truck from a guy she knows. Meanwhile, Janine has what’s almost sure to be a will-they-won’t-they-want in substitute teacher Gregory, played by Tyler James Williams, all grown up from his days as Chris the Everybody Hates Chris.
But it’s stand-up Janelle James who is arguably the star. James is Ava, AbbottMost ingenious invention of: The principal who really doesn’t care about her job and prefers to be an influencer. Some might hear this description and choose to play Ava as Kardashian-wannabe with vocal fries and arrogance. Not James, who makes Ava a girl who just wants to have a good time – not malicious, just ignorant and able to turn any line of dialogue into a joke.
The magic of Abbott Elementary School isn’t just that its characters feel completely formed even early in its run and that the cast has that kind of alchemical chemistry that makes sitcoms shine. Brunson pulls off a premise that is both brilliant and delicate. Casting a workplace comedy at a struggling school is a tightrope walk, but Brunson and his writers manage to do it. Abbott Elementary School neither tearful nor flippant. It inspires action without relying on mundane “inspirational” tropes. An episode about Abbott teachers filling their classroom wish lists with Ava’s viral TikTok videos sparked minus one spectator go ahead and buy the necessary supplies for the teachers.
At the same time, it is thoroughly very funny, mixing physical humor – Janine trapped on a ladder, for example; the serious Gregory dancing awkwardly – with an ace handwriting. Children are used sparingly, but remind the audience that these people are dealing with impressionable and clumsy young minds. They are not the center of attention because Abbott Elementary School is built for the long haul. Students come and go, but Janine and her fellow teachers will be there for years. Presumably, they’ll also grace our TV screens and become a fabric of our lives like the best sitcoms do.