Abbott Elementary

2021 - United States

Review by AJ

In the age of highbrow comedy from streaming series, one traditional network television comedy managed to break through the ranks and break records with the so-called outdated formula. Adopting the mockumentary format, Abbott Elementary is an earnest, heartwarming sitcom tackling a pressing social issue about underfunding in education. The duality of the show is thanks to creator and star Quinta Brunson, who captures the real-time crisis faced by schools in the US and turns it into entertainment with a mission. 

The single-camera sitcom follows Janine Teagues (Brunson), an earnest second-grade teacher at the underfunded and mismanaged Willard R. Abbott Elementary School. Despite the hurdles around her - often coming from the school system itself - Janine is determined to provide the best education to her predominantly Black students from a poor district in Philadelphia. She is surrounded by a colourful cast of characters who also work at the school: temp teacher Gregory Eddie (Tyler James Williams) whose crush on Janine slowly changes his indifferent attitude, motherly senior teacher Barbara Howard (Sheryl Lee Ralph), seedy but kind-hearted fellow second-grade teacher Melissa Schemmenti (Lisa Ann Walter), awkward but well-meaning history teacher Jacob Hill (Chris Perfetti), and Principal Ava Coleman (Janelle James), whose incompetence often causes trouble at the school.

Abbott Elementary
Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange from the 2017 series

It is clear from the get-go that Abbott Elementary is, at heart, a critique on the education system. Each episode highlights the various ways that the school suffers despite the teachers’ best intentions: lack of budgets, dilapidated facilities, poor mismanagement, unfair regulations, corrupt officials, the list goes on. 

Just like The Office and Modern Family before it, the mockumentary format allows audiences to feel much closer to the characters. As they interact with the camera, you feel like they’re directly talking to you. You become part of their side-eye glances or tired sighs every time Principal Ava makes one of her questionable decisions, or when the kids do something really annoying. It puts you into the teachers’ shoes, Janine especially. People often complain about public schools being inadequate and that the teachers lack what it takes to prepare their students for the real world, but this sitcom delicately shows how the corrupt system plays a huge part in wearing down these teachers, what with the paltry wages and funding. So, it is all the more inspiring watching Janine and her cohorts keep persevering in their own imperfect ways. 

There is a particularly touching quote early on in the series where an overwhelmed Janine lashes out because she feels her peers don’t care enough about improving the school. In response, this is what Melissa tells her: 

“We care so much we refuse to burn out. If we burn out, who’s there for these kids?

That’s why you gotta take care of yourself.” 

That answer is something that all overworked individuals can take with them, teacher or not, but it also underscores an important lesson: fixing something you really care about is often a marathon, not a sprint. It’s a long way to go so it is important to space yourself so you can see it through to the end. In a way, what Abbott Elementary is doing highlights the arduous process needed to solve problems in the country’s education. Watching it, you gain a newfound respect for schoolteachers.

 All of those important messages and lofty ideas are bundled in light-hearted comedy and quirky interactions between the characters, making it palatable for all. Brunson’s singular voice really comes through. The show is never about big punchlines or fancy dialogues, but its natural dialogues come from relatable everyday situations. Like that, she’s created a loving tribute to schoolteachers, one of the most important and undervalued professions to ever exist.

Published on May 3rd, 2024. Written by Jennifer Ariesta for Television Heaven.

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