Abbott Elementary Is The Comedy Series Broadcast TV — And The World — Needs Right Now
Why I’m Looking Forward to Seeing Them Next Fall
Even in the era of Peak TV, I have rarely noticed two series that can be truly regarded as masterpieces debuted within weeks of each other. (Granted, I have a more reduced scope than most critics, so that may be on me.) Yet in the opening months of 2022, two series which have the potential to be among the greatest of the new decade have finished their first extraordinary season. I already spent much of the first quarter of the year praising to the rafters HBO’s period drama The Gilded Age. And now, I shall do the same for a series that couldn’t more be its polar opposite except in quality, ABC’s brilliant new comedy Abbott Elementary. And the latter couldn’t have come at a better time.
There have been warning signs the past few months the network comedy might be going into its death spiral. NBC didn’t even bother to have one at the beginning of its fall schedules and it’s been awhile since we’ve had a truly great one. Then this December, Quinta Brunson, the writer/star brought us Abbott Elementary and gave it the jolt it desperately needed. Brunson has combined two very different structures — the workplace comedy and the working-class comedy. There have been some truly great ones of the former — Parks and Recreation and The Office are considered classics, but for all the genius behind both, you couldn’t ignore the fact that they were predominantly white. As for the working class comedy, those have become even scarcer and most have been revivals — The Connors is the most successful, but it’s essentially a revival of Roseanne.
Abbott Elementary takes on both of these and adds the element of race that is almost invariably left out — the series takes place at one of the poorest schools in Philadelphia, and it makes it painfully clear in every episode just how much work all of the teachers have to do just to get by. They are constantly struggling for funding for basic things like supplies and electronics, their efforts to try and get extracurricular activities for their students are things they have to do themselves on almost every level, and fighting for their kids is one of those things they try not to care about but do.
This could be the grist for the fourth season of The Wire but Brunson and her cast go out of their way never to show despair and to make us laugh. Janine (Brunson) has far less reason for optimism or hope than Leslie Knope, Amy Poehler’s character that she has been compared to in some reviews, but she has the same level of determination. Unlike Leslie, Janine’s is grounded in realism. She’s been at this job long enough not to believe in the goodness of everyone around her, and that she’ll have to fight for everything. The thing is she’s prepared to do that.
All of the characters have a realism that goes beyond the surface level cliché you might have thought there were going into the series. Jacob is Janine closest friend and one of the few white members on the faculty. For much of the first few episodes, he seems like he was going to be a cliché of the white ally trying to hard. Then we learned, inadvertently, that he was gay, something Janine didn’t know. There followed an amusing side quest where Janine tried to force her ‘work family’ to reveal their secrets, which in true Abbott Elementary style, led to her being humiliated. But in the aftermath, Jacob revealed why he’d hidden his sexuality and that it was because they were close — he didn’t want to reveal his feelings about her long-term relationship because he didn’t want to hurt her feelings. (More on that later.) Jacob had shown layers throughout the seasons, particularly on his developing friendship with Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph) the elder stateswoman of Abbott. The scenes where they work on growing a garden were among my favorite of the first season.
Barbara herself continued to grow in change. We had some funny storylines about her not being able to use technology well and being unable to adapt to using her moral codes. But we also got some very moving segments about her and her adult daughter, who lives in New York and works in business. They have a mostly good relationship, but it’s been clear in a couple of episodes that it’s problematic. Janine still clearly sees her as mentor-mother figure and it’s been hard for her to accept someone else taking her place. But their bond remains strong and Ralph’s work is a constant joy.
Perhaps the most constant source of laughs is, of course, Ava. Dazzlingly played by Janelle James as a woman who cares more about being on the Internet then doing anything remotely resembling her job (which she blackmailed the superintendent into getting), Ava could have just been used as a source for laughs when the series needs it. But Brunson is more balanced than that. In one episode, Janine was leading a dance group and Ava offered to help. Janine was clearly surprised, and then upset, when the class began to avoid her mundane routines for Ava’s flashy ones. She was also being cautioned by everyone that Ava would never follow through on the routine. Sure enough, on the day of the performance, Ava was very late and the viewer expected that she had flaked out. Then Ava showed up, with her very unstable grandmother, who has been having trouble getting used to the senior living center she was in. It was a moment of depth that Ava and Janine talked about. Ava led the performance which was perfect, and Janine covered for her with the faculty. The credits scene at the end where they did their own dance off was both funny and a little touching — what is becoming the perfect balance for Abbott Elementary.
The series has spent a great deal of the first season trying to build a balance between the job and the personal. It has been clear that ever since Gregory arrived, against his will, as a teacher at Abbott that there was an attraction that he clearly feels for Janine that she is either oblivious too or is ignoring because of her long-term (and weren’t their jokes when the rest of faculty found out) relationship with Tariq, a musician who specialized in anti-drug performances. Brunson hasn’t exactly tried that hard to make Tariq worthy of Janine — he is focused on his goals, treats Janine like a doormat and clearly has a higher opinion of his talents as a musician as a man. But he’s not entirely two-dimensional — whenever we see him performing or around Janine’s students, he genuinely seems to care about them and put focus on them with dedication. Then again, this may be the point — Brunson is probably suggesting Tariq is childlike himself.
In another show — perhaps like The Office where Jim kissed Pam on the eve of her wedding — Gregory would have forced the issue by the season finale at least. Instead, Brunson had Jacob gently point this out halfway through the season, and had Janine come to the realization on her own in the season finale ‘Zoo Balloon’. On the class trip to the zoo, Janine spent much of the episode trying to deal with the issue that Tariq had finally achieved his dreams, but was planning to move to New York without even thinking about what she wanted. She spent much of the episode projecting her issues on to other people, particularly a first-grader who seems scared about next year. When the child disappeared on her, she ended up finding him in the title Zoo Balloon and by persuading him not to be afraid, finally forced herself to end her relationship with Tariq. Even though we knew it had to happen for her and the series to progress, Brunson still managed to break your heart doing.
The season finale featured everything that has made Abbott Elementary great. Ava arranged the class trip to zoo without getting permission from the school board because she wanted to go to the zoo. Barbara dealt with the idea of a reptile that’d been at the zoo as long as she’d been teaching on hiatus as a sign she needed to retire. Then when the crisis with the missing child happened, she did what she did best: she took charge, told everybody where to go and what to do, and helped resolve it. She walked away feeling like her old self. And in one of those subtle moments that show the series has depths that so many don’t, there was a minor subplot where the custodian was left behind with children with no permission slips. He turned their time there into a mini-version of The Breakfast Club. In the last credit sequence of the year, he took an essay they were supposed to have written about superheroes — and it was revealed that to these kids, their teachers are real superheroes. It was one of those moving moments that the series does so well (followed by a punch line I wouldn’t dream of revealing, save that it has the same deflating nature that a comedy like Parks and Rec would use).
It is becoming harder and harder to make a truly great comedy series — harder still make one that has as much heart as it does humor, as the nature of even the best comedies today is to have too emphasis cynicism. I didn’t even notice that Abbott Elementary may be the first shows I’ve seen on a broadcast network that doesn’t have a single straight white male in the cast, and there haven’t been many in guest roles either. It doesn’t need any and trust me, you won’t be complaining about their absence. . I was over the moon when Abbott Elementary was given an early renewal from ABC for a second season. This is the best network comedy series I have since The Good Place debuted in the fall of 2016. And just like we needed that comedy series at that time, we need a series that shows the balance of people doing the best they can at thankless jobs with few resources at their disposable and doing it not by being superhuman but by being human. No one at Abbott Elementary, the school, is used to getting rewards. Everyone at Abbott Elementary the series will be getting a lot of them, sooner rather than later.
My score: A+ (sorry couldn’t help it) 5 Stars.