The Superb Abbott Elementary Shows Us What It’s Really Like In Today’s School’s
Old Format, Urban twist
There has been a huge amount of derision of Parks and Recreation the past few years as a comedy series for not being the kind of show that works in the current environment. I don’t know how anybody could ever view a series with Chris Pratt and Rob Lowe in minor roles as ‘not working’, but that’s my jam. This year, a new comedy with the same time of format and just like Parks female run has debuted on ABC. It has everything that made Parks and Rec delightful, is far more faithful to the basic idea and is just as hysterical.
Showrunner-lead Quinta Brunson plays Janine Teagues, a grade school teacher at the title school. Janine has the same never-say-die optimism that Leslie Knope had, but considering where she is and why, it is far less warranted. Her school is one of the worst public schools in the country (in one of the most memorable opening gags her history book is three presidents behind so she has taped pictures of them into it) There is no money in the budget for anything, even mats for people to nap on. Janine tells us point blank that of the twenty teachers who started there three years earlier when she did, she’s one of only three who are still working there. We’ve met them both; Jacob, a white teacher so desperate to show his ‘woke’ credentials its sad and Melissa, who isn’t quite from a mob family, but knows people. Both are far more cynical then here. Neither have anything on Barbara (the wonderful Sheryl Lee Ralph) a ‘lifer’ who basically given up on anything any changing. It doesn’t help matters that the school is ‘led’ by principal Ava, a woman who is so utterly incompetent you’d think it had something to do with typical bureaucracy — until she tells she blackmailed one of the superintendents into getting the job. Added to this mix is Gregory, a substitute who actually applied for the principal position and is basically an administrator with no teaching experience.
Abbott Elementary is just as satiric in its jabs as Parks and Rec was but where the latter series was essentially a broader lampoon of the political situation, Abbott gets its humor from being just plausible enough to be funny. It also helps matters immensely that, with few exceptions, the cast is African-American and there’s a certain pain as they go through an absolutely horrendous situation. In the Pilot, Janine pushes as hard as she can to get money from the budgets for mats for her students who she needs to sleep. The money comes to the school, but the principal decides rather then spend it on the students to spend it all on a mural in the front of the school — with her face on it. When Janine tries to complain about it, the principal finds out and interrupting the lunch period so that everybody — meaning her — can publicly shame Janine.
Janine’s optimism is also far more muted than Leslie Knope’s ever was. She doesn’t try for sweeping changes — all she wants is to fix the light bulbs in the hall. And she knows how hard the job is. Near the end of the Pilot, Barbara explains every duty a teacher has to and her descriptors are painful in their honest — “You’re their second mother,” then she pauses, “sometimes their first.” So much truth is in that statement and its something Parks would never dream of saying.
If I’ve made this series sound too dismal, it really isn’t. It can also be blissfully funny. There are already some interesting background characters — like the first grade teacher who tells his class about the Illuminati and the custodian who labels his fuse box with Boys II Men song titles. And there’s an earnestness to the comedy too — Gregory ends up trying to convince the mother of one of his students to drop her son off time by going to a nail salon with Barbara which is equal measure awkward comedy and some painful truths (she drops him off late because she has to make her shift at work and he’s worried that her son will fall behind in elementary reading)
The camera set workplace comedy has been a staple since The Office but so many of those series tried to focus on the behavior of the workers rather then the seriousness of their situation. Abbott Elementary doesn’t do that at all and as a result, many of these characters are probably a lot more fully drawn then the ones we’ve seen even on the funniest of comedies. (For one thing, the show makes the wise decision not to be the principal — who is very close in behavior to Michael Scott despite not being the same race or gender — anything but a side character.)I don’t know if this series will have the same lifespan as The Office and Parks and Rec but having watched just the first two episodes, it’s already far better than either series in their first season and in my opinion, deserves to have the same long run.
My score: 4.75 stars.