If you are anything like me, you crave good television. And being in the age of streaming services, you are getting it! We are living with some of the strongest dramas out there. Succession, Barry, Better Call Saul, and so many more drive thousands of people to the small screen. But in the minefield of dramatic family relationships; daring high-speed chases; and whatever Roman Roy is going through, sometimes you need a laugh. And that’s where the mockumentary sitcom Abbott Elementary comes in.
The comedy created by Buzzfeed alumni Quinta Brunson premiered last December, and has taken the world by storm – the Academy being one of them. Recently the show has garnered critical acclaim, scoring seven Emmy nominations, and three wins – including Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for Sheryl Lee Ralph (who had one of the best acceptance speeches I’ve seen in a while!) and Best Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series for their “Pilot” episode. With numerous other accolades, one wonders, how does Abbott do it? What makes Abbott Elementary such a great show?
One of the many reasons Abbott Elementary works is the lovable cast. The show takes place in an underfunded public school in the Philadelphia school district called Abbott Elementary. Brunson’s character Janine Teagues leads the cast of characters at the school—or at least tries too. Teague has an incredibly empathetic heart, and yet being one of the new teachers, she still has a lot to learn. The other new teacher in her crew is Jacob Hill (played by Chris Perfetti). He’s awkward, cringe-worthy, and says the wrong things all the time. And yet, Hill is still incredibly lovable. Hill tries to be buddy-buddy with new substitute teacher Gregory Eddie (Tyler James Williams), but Eddie does not reciprocate these feelings. He is closed off and tries to do things ‘by the book’. (He is also probably my favorite character on the show.) Being part of the new set of teachers at Abbott can be challenging, but these three learn a lot from senior teachers Barbara Howard (Sheryl Lee Ralph) and Melissa Schemmenti (Lisa Ann Walter). Howard is the queen of Abbott. Her kindergarten class is immaculate, just like her. She knows how to run a classroom, and so many of the younger teachers go to her for… . Same with Schemmenti! She is a girl from South Philly who ‘knows a guy’ for everything, and can help you in your hardest predicament. And problems are plenty at Abbott, especially with the addition of the new principle Ava Coleman (Janelle James). Coleman is in with the latest tech and trends. She is fashionable and incredibly individualistic, but this leads to some issues of self-centeredness that do not benefit Abbott.
Lovable characters are just one of the ways Abbott does television well. One of the best ways to describe this show is with one simple word – real. Abbott Elementary strives for realism in all facets of life, especially with the working life of teachers. Being a person (especially an educator!) is incredibly messy. We all make mistakes, do something wrong, and feel bad. And Abbott Elementary cherishes this aspect of our lives! It delves into the messiness, and laughs at it; because that is what it means to be human. Most of the characters on the show have their own flaws that they overcome throughout the season; They make a mistake and grow from that. Abbott’s huge heart allows for this to not be seen as something negative, but very positive. That is what living is!
A huge reason why Abbott is so poignant right now is due to the dismaying fact that most teachers (especially in public schools) are not treated fairly. Exemplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, the problems that educators have been facing in their respective fields came to a breaking point. In March of this year, Secretary Miguel Cardona issued a “a nationwide call to action for states, higher education leaders, and schools to tap federal resources and work together to address the teacher shortage.” Both the Secretary and President Biden acknowledge that the challenge of teacher shortage and underfunded school districts fall hardest on “students of color, students in rural communities, students from low-income backgrounds, students with disabilities, and multilingual learners.” This is a sad reality that most schools have to deal with. And yet through it all, you just sometimes have to laugh. The situations that educators have to face can be some of the weirdest scenarios out there, and you just have to make fun of it sometimes. And yet, what Abbott does so well with this is seamlessly blending a laughable scenario with the gravity of the situation of the whole. Abbott at the core is about treating the injustices faced in the school systems that we see now with respect and deserve, in a digestible way. This tone in the show is already shown just in the “Pilot” episode alone! When Janine has to get a new rug for her classroom, we see the wacky hijinks that ensue (like Ava misusing all the money, Barbara being more of a disciplined teacher, Janine’s false hope as a new teacher, and much more!). But at the end of the episode, the core message comes out in full light when all the teachers band together to get a new rug in Janine’s classroom, so that a student is able to take a nap in her class during lunch. Barbara literally states the reason why teachers should be respected more. “Janine, teachers at a school like [Abbott] have to…be able to do it all. We’re admin. We’re therapists. We’re social workers. We’re second parents. Sometimes, first. Why? Sure as hell not the pay.” That’s the core. That’s the empathy that drives this show home. The humor is great, but the emotion is even greater.
That empathy goes off the screen as well. On multiple occasions, the show has allocated parts of their budget to go to underfunded schools. Quinta Brunson and her crew have “revealed that the “Abbott Elementary” production team and ABC agreed to take a portion of the budget they had allocated to marketing expenses and donate it to teachers.” This goes directly to educators for school supplies and other needs. Brunson continues by stating that “[i]t’s about being able to make those kinds of decisions that really excite me, things that can really materially help people.”
These roots of empathy and actually caring about what is made go towards their effort to provide real diversity and representation both on and off the screen. The show is steeped in realistic Black culture, and one of the best highlights of this is with the “Step Class” episode. Jeanine and Ava help create a Step after-school program for the students to learn about community and togetherness. The events (while funny moments happen between the characters) play out with the utmost respect for Step and the importance of it in a school with a predominantly Black student population. And this is all thanks to the diverse writers room of Abbott. True representation is not just about what happens on screen; when there are diverse perspectives on every step of the filmmaking process, then a production can actually feel authentic and real. And Abbott Elementary does just that.
Many fans of the show call Abbott Elementary, a sitcom that is revitalizing sitcoms – and I am absolutely one of them. This show about a public school is packed with a whole lot of heart and humor.
Image Courtesy of ABC