In the series premiere of Abbott Elementary, one of the most endearing TV comedies in recent memory, something terrifying happens. Heartbroken on her first day in the classroom, a rookie teacher kicks her young student. The scene is a case study in the dangers of public school staffing with inexperienced teachers. Her immediate dismissal also serves a narrative purpose; we learn that the deputy sent to replace her, Gregory (Tyler James Williams), has been hired to be Abbott’s new principal before the narcissistic, woefully unqualified Ava (Janelle James) blackmails the chief into getting the job. He becomes a love interest for our main character, the testy young teacher Janine (as creator Quinta Brunson). By the end of the episode, her cheerful presence helps convince him to stay and their will-they-or-won’t they plot begins.
Most sitcoms, even really good ones New girl and It’s always sunny in Philadelphia, take a moment to discover their voices. But ABC Abbott, which returns on Sept. 21 with three brand new Emmys to its name, has emerged with a unique, fully formed perspective. Although it falls into a familiar sub-genre, as a sweet, fake single-camera documentary in the tradition of The office, Parks and recreation areasand Modern familythe show works because it never fails to contextualize its kindness in the real world, where the latter is in short supply.
Tyler James Williams and Quinta Brunson
Located in a poor, predominantly black neighborhood of Philadelphia, Abbott is the typical under-resourced urban public school. And BrunsonThe depiction of this setting is unflinching. The building is crumbling; infestations and foul odors abound. (Janine and Gregory meet in the toilet, where he tries to help a boy who peed himself, she escorts a girl who threw up in class, and a broken toilet sprays water everywhere.) There is no room for basics like current textbooks, cleaning materials and classroom carpets for the youngest children to sit on in the anemic budget. Many parents are disengaged—not because they don’t care, but because supporting a family with a low-paying job is more than a full-time job.
Not all of the staff are particularly devoted to children. Ava doesn’t even pretend that she doesn’t use her leadership role for money, influence and privilege. We also learn that of the several dozen new teachers who started at Abbott last fall, only Janine; Jacob (Chris Perfetti), a white social justice guy who is desperate to be liked by his students; and another colleague returned for a second year. But the committed faculty members who make up the show’s core cast of characters are there for a reason—and, as veteran teacher Barbara (the excellent Emmy-winning Sheryl Lee Ralph) points out, “it’s certainly not for the money.” They want to do the best they can for children who rarely get to enjoy the best of everything. We know they have real-life counterparts because America’s increasingly strained public school system hasn’t collapsed yet.
Although they all have the same goal, teachers don’t necessarily agree on how to achieve it. Barbara, one of those magical whispering kids who never loses control of her classroom, and her friend Melissa (Lisa Ann Walter), a street-smart Philly girl to the core, have been so frustrated by administrators and local authorities that long that they settle for making do with the meager resources they are given – or go outside the system to get what they need. (Melissa “has a person” for everything.) Younger, more idealistic teachers like Janine and Jacob are not ready to give up their belief that it is possible to change the system from within. They almost always turn out to be wrong, but practical support from more experienced teachers and genuine concern for their students keeps them going when it would be easier to give up.
Lisa Ann Walter, left, and Cheryl Lee Ralph
Television has no inherent obligation to represent real life. Some of the greatest comedies of our time, from Atlanta to Community, flourish with fantastic flourishes. But in these cruel times, there’s something deceptive about the typical “nice” sitcom—one set in a world like ours, only kinder. Idealism under the guise of realism can at worst function as propaganda for an optimistic outlook without a basis in fact. Show me a fallen billionaire so merciful and loving Sheets Creek’s Johnny Roseor a professional football coach as sensitive and progressive as Ted Lasso. It’s saying something that, as Trump’s viciousness and police violence against communities of color has gotten old fast Parks and recreation areas and Brooklyn Nine-Ninetheir creator Mike Schur did The good placea comedy about moral philosophy set in a non-denominational afterlife.
AbbottThe goodness of resonates differently because Brunson doesn’t have to create a better world or otherwise distort reality for it to work. Her teachers are under no illusions about what their students are up against; disappointment, on small and large scales, is a daily occurrence. Brunson never suggests that individual educators can or should be expected to adequately compensate for a broken system—just that many are doing the best they can. An underserved public school is an ideal setting for a multi-season sitcom, for the unfortunate reason that it will never run out of problems to drive the plot. (Also, kids are cute.)
To that end, the show’s second season introduces a new source of frustration: Addington Elementary, the well-funded charter school in the neighborhood of Abbott. When Janine and her colleagues go inside to return a carton of new textbooks destined for Addington, they are dazzled by the sparkling corridors, functional air conditioning and computer lab. Also present: the teacher who kicked the Abbott student a year earlier. “At a charter school, there’s a lot less oversight in the hiring process,” the woman boasts, “so it was pretty sweet.” Like so many of Brunson’s best jokes, it’s funny because true.
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