Catching up with Abbott Elementary
ABC’s “Abbott Elementary” is currently on a break, which means it’s the perfect time to catch up with the first exciting network sitcom in years.
Part of the excitement is simply based on ratings. The second episode of “Abbott Elementary” brought in the highest ratings for a network sitcom since the “Modern Family” finale, which is in itself a feat. Network TV has been falling in ratings since the streaming era began, so to see a sitcom become a legitimate hit in its first season, without any stars and without being a spinoff, is a shock.
The other half of the excitement, and the part that’s more important here, is the quality of “Abbott Elementary.”
The show is set in the Philadelphia public school system and follows teachers as they attempt to navigate their lack of budget, unruly kids, and personal relationships. It’s a classic example of the workplace sitcom, a genre that reached a creative peak in the 2000s and 2010s with shows like the American version of “The Office,” “30 Rock,” and “Parks and Recreation.”
“Abbott Elementary” is indebted to many of those shows creatively (like “The Office” and “Parks and Rec,” it’s done in a mockumentary style), but it manages to update and expand the genre in exciting ways creatively.
The creator and star is Quinta Brunson, who first achieved fame comedically on the internet through viral videos and her work at Buzzfeed. The big change she makes to the format of the network workplace sitcom is to focus “Abbott Elementary” squarely on systemic issues that the Philadelphia school system faces today. Philadelphia feels like a real city in “Abbott,” one whose situation Brunson and her writers are directly drawing on and discussing. Whereas “Parks and Rec”’s version of Pawnee felt like a parody of the Midwest, and “The Office” was only nominally set in Scranton, “Abbott” draws its comedy from issues like the lack of funding that Philadelphia teachers receive, and gains real perspective because of it. That perspective makes the show feel fresher than its recently staid genre would typically allow.
The other big change to the workplace sitcom is, to be blunt about it, that the cast is predominately Black. Though high-quality network sitcoms centered on Black families have existed since the ‘70s, fewer workplace comedies about Black workplaces have been greenlit at this level. That would be exciting enough, but what’s even better is that Brunson uses this to her full advantage creatively: writing plots about step teams, including a well-meaning but often clueless white teacher who can be made fun of, and allowing Black characters the full breadth of the sitcom archetypes.
But beyond just perspective and casting, it’s important that “Abbott Elementary” is the one thing any sitcom needs to be: really, really funny. The standout in the cast is Janelle James, who plays Ava, the school’s principal. She is an unhinged diva of the Jenna Maroney variety, but now with legitimate power, which makes her even funnier.
Sheryl Lee Ralph continues to cement her icon status as Barbara, one of the more seasoned teachers at “Abbott.” In other hands, Barbara could be a bore, as a full-blown professional who is rarely thrown off her game is not classic sitcom fodder. But, instead of playing the straight man, Ralph finds just as much fun in her characterization as the other cast members, managing to create infinite versions of a close-lipped smile for any situation, all of them funny. And, when she is occasionally called on to be in the wrong, she’s all the funnier for it.
Brunson is the lead of the show as Janine, a permanently optimistic new-ish teacher who constantly pushes forward despite just as constant setbacks. Brunson has done fantastic work quickly defining Janine’s relationships in the show with each of the other leads: she’s in a classic will-they-won’t-they relationship with Tyler James Williams’ stick-in-the-mud substitute teacher Gregory; she sees Barbara as a mother figure despite Barbara’s general apathy toward her; she is in an antagonistic relationship with the carefree Ava, etc. Those clearly defined and wide-reaching relationships are a necessity for any sitcom that wishes to run for an extended period, which “Abbott” is surely aiming for.
If there’s a critique to be made of the show, it’s that it is occasionally too indebted to classic sitcom beats. While the will-they-won’t-they is a classic, enjoyable plot, it is, as of now, the only extended arc of the season. While sticking to self-contained plots used to be sitcom standard, “Abbott” is likely to be consumed moving forward by streaming audiences, even if it didn’t originate there, and streaming necessitates extended plots to keep audience interest. It’s likely that Brunson and her writers put these plots aside in order to have time to sketch their characters, but the constant same-ness of the format can become difficult. “Abbott”’s inspirations in the mockumentary style mined extended plots for both emotional and comedy gold as they progressed, and “Abbott” will be all the better when it starts doing the same.
Ultimately, though, this critique is not cause for concern. “Abbott Elementary” is smart enough, original enough, and funny enough to hold your interest through its breezy nine episode run. When it comes back, I’d make sure you’re watching.