By John Hanlon
In the pilot episode of the new NBC comedy Abbott Elementary, a relatively new teacher in the public school system pleads for money from the district. The district acquiesces but instead of providing money for teacher's aides or a rug (both of which the school could use), the principal uses the money and purchases a new sign for the school instead, glossing over the school’s true needs and putting her face front and center. This is only one example of the playful dynamics that makes this sitcom stand out.
By depicting both the decency of teachers and the flaws of some bureaucrats in charge, the show charts a course that lets it show the highs and lows of working in the education system.
Set at Willard Abbott Public School, an elementary school in the Philadelphia system, the program focuses in on the teachers with a documentary camera team capturing the events in the school, similar to how The Office showed both the events in the workplace alongside interviews with the characters. Quinta Brunson, who created the program, stars as Jeanine Teagues, a second-year teacher. She arrived only a year earlier alongside the earnest Jacob (Chris Perfetti). As she notes to the camera crew, “Jacob and I came in together last year with twenty other teachers. We’re two of the three left.”
These two teachers are trying to fit in with veteran teachers Barbra Howard (Sheryl Lee Ralph), who has been in the profession for more than two decades, and Melissa Schemmenti (Lisa Ann Walter), a South Philly teacher who knows how to work outside the system to get what she needs.
The program shows the teachers in their classrooms but also shows one-on-one interviews with them, showing how the teachers feel about different aspects of their jobs. When Gregory (Tyler James Williams), a new substitute teacher arrives, the program also reveals how even the second-year teachers have gotten used to things—like a spraying toilet—and don’t even think about it anymore.
Of course, the show isn’t simply about teachers in the classroom. It’s also about how they work in a system that undervalues them and gives administrators power to make major decisions. In this case, that bureaucracy is represented by principal Ava Coleman (Janelle James). A self-described doomsday prepper, the self-absorbed Ava is more interested in making things look good than in making things better. Her character’s over-the-top personality provides the show with a good-hearted silliness that keeps the laughs coming.
As a new program, there are times when it feels like the show feels like it’s trying to find the right footing but it has all of the ingredients of a great comedy, including some unique character details. For instance, Jacob’s eagerness to appear “woke” and politically correct sets him up as a perfect example of someone trying way too hard to fit in. Whether he’s talking about the book White Fragility or trying to quote Cornell West, the character is played for laughs as an oversensitive youngster trying to prove he belongs in such a diverse environment.
Abbott Elementary doesn’t settle for simple punchlines and much of the comedy derives from the unique characters and their interactions with each other. Brunson may be the star of the show but she never takes herself too seriously, with some of the show’s best one-liners coming at her character’s expense. The stellar supporting cast — which also includes a sarcastic janitor (William Stanford Davis)— help make this show into a comedy gem that hopefully will have room to grow in the years to come.