I’ve Never Been Happier For School To Be Back In Session
Abbott Elementary Returns For A Second Blissful Season
Some series are born great. Some series achieve greatness. And some series have been created by Quinta Brunson, who in less than a year has gone from a mere internet sensation to one of the most astonishing hyphenates in the history of television — and in the process, gave us the first classic comedy of the decade.
Last December, after seeing the pilot of Abbott Elementary I made the bold decision to DVR the final season of This is Us in favor of watching live this incredible comedy. It should have been a difficult choice — even in the age of streaming I have forsaken many superb series because they were running against other shows I was locked into — but after I saw the pilot of Abbott Elementary, I knew I had to watch every episode the night it aired. Because Quinta Brunson had created a series that television — broadcast TV in particular — desperately needed: a workplace comedy in the mold of The Office and Parks and Rec, but one that looked much more like the world we live in. And this is one of the reasons Abbott Elementary became one of the most critically acclaimed series and surprise hits of 2022. In a world where, now more than ever, the educational system is being questioned on almost every level, we needed a series that demonstrated as clearly possible just what it’s like to work in America’s fractured state of education. And because to look in this mirror for long would be too hard, Brunson did a huge favor by making it one of the funniest comedies in a very long time; certainly, the funniest network series since The Good Place debuted in the fall of 2016.
For those who need to be schooled (sorry) Abbott Elementary refers to the Philadelphia school where Janine (Brunson) and her weary fellow teachers try to help an overcrowded, underfunded school and make more with less. Janine has the bright cheerfulness of an Amy Poehler character, and like Leslie Knope, many of the faculty find her relentless cheerfulness in the face of relentless adversity slightly irksome given the mess their school is always in. None of the co-stars fit neatly in any of the boxes that we relate with so many workplace series; Brunson goes out of her way to shine the light on every member of her ensemble and give them as many layers as possible. Jacob (Chris Perletti) is also enthusiastic, and proud to be an ‘ally’ of so many of the faculty. Seeming initially like he’s trying to hard, we often see a man who is insecure (we learned of his homosexuality the same time Janine did) but he always puts an extra bit of effort in everything. (During summer break he learned sign language.) Melissa is a working class Italian, who has ‘connections (how did Lisa Ann Walter become the sole member of the cast not to earn an Emmy nomination this time out?) but who often hides much of her personal life (she has an ex-husband) and her actual family (last night we learned her sister works at a charter school) Barbara (if you only knew from her performance at the Emmys ceremony, you didn’t know the layers Sheryl Lee Ralph did to earn her Best Supporting Actress) is the more realistic than cynical teaching lifer, knowing that her school will always have to do more with less. Ava (Janelle James continues to steal every scene she’s in) is the principal who is far more interested in her social media following then doing her job…most of the time. And Gregory (Tyler James Williams) is the former substitute, now full-time teacher, unable to escape his stiff behavior around everybody — including Janine.
Janine, as you’d expect, is the center of the Abbott universe and the series always shines when she is as the center. Janine has a never give up attitude in an institution which is always making people give up. Recent events have dulled her luster slightly (she spent most of the season premiere dealing with the ramifications of her breakup with her boyfriend — and sole sexual partner) but we all know it’s just for a moment. In last night’s episode, when the faculty paid a visit to a charter school across the street, Janine did everything in her power to make it seem like Abbott is just as good — a pretty neat trick considering last year’s calendar is holding up one of the walls at their school. Determined to prove that Abbott deserved better, she made an effort to pitch a computer room for Abbott (which meant a room with a computer) and as always was forced to dance before Ava who loves mocking everything she does. (Typically, Ava turned the pitch for grant money into an episode of Shark Tank and pulled another student out of class to fill out the panel.) Janine managed to get the computer she wanted to her enormous surprise…and in typical Abbott fashion had defeat snatched from the jaws of victory when the cafeteria was found to be swarming with mice. Naturally, the money in the budget went to an exterminator and then cleaning supplies. (The students did get something special…but you should see the episode to know what it is.)
But because Brunson knows the talent she has on hand, she makes sure everybody in the cast gets their own moments to be funny and sad at the same time. One of the running gags of last night’s episode came when we learned that Barbara seems to have a feeling that certain white actors and actresses are actually African Americans and each cast member explained what she was getting wrong. (Hey, some people of a certain age naturally mistake Carrie Underwood for Kerry Washington.) Meanwhile Gregory was trying to find a way to break up with Taylor, Barbara’s daughter and went through a debate as to how to do it without hurting her feelings or Barbara’s -which led to Jaco suggesting ‘petering out’. He was talked out of it while helping Janine and then told Barbara he was going to break up with Taylor — only to learn that Taylor had decided to ‘peter him out’. As you’d expect the series has Janine and Gregory dancing around each other (I’m assuming they’re the Jim and Pam of this series) but neither has been willing to go to a certain point yet. (I’m betting their first date happens by the season finale.)
Abbott Elementary has already been dominating the awards circuit the last several months, dominating both the TCA and the HCA with Quinta Brunson taking two trophies for writing and acting from each organization and winning Best Comedy for each series. In this sense, their triumphs at last month’s Emmys, while the biggest for any network sitcom since Modern Family were almost a disappointment even though Ralph and Brunson each took home a prize and the series deservedly won an Emmy for Best Casting. I suppose I am duty bound to mention that this may be the first series I’ve seen on a network show that doesn’t have a single straight white male in any major role, but speaking as a straight white male who already thinks this is one of the best series of 2022, should that really be a factor in your choosing to watch it? Abbott Elementary is the right series for the era we are currently live in, a show I imagine far too many people can relate to even if they’re not a parent or a teacher or think they don’t have any connection to the world that this comedy inhabits. In a way Brunson is using this show to make a statement about education today, but she is just as determined to make one of the funniest and most heartfelt series imaginable. The cast and crew of Abbott Elementary will be walking the red carpets of award shows this winter and for years to come. No matter what you think of the public school system, you will come away from this series with as much respect for teachers as for Brunson and her cast.
My Score: 5 Stars.