'Abbott Elementary' Will Be Your New Favorite Comfort Show
The ABC sitcom is one of the best new shows of 2022, bringing a much-needed freshness to the network mockumentary.
The U.S. version of The Office was certainly not the first television show to feature characters breaking the fourth wall and glancing at the camera, but it's probably the most ubiquitous. Reaction shots of Jim and Stanley and Pam have been immortalized in GIFs that still populate feeds, and few shows have featured moments that could possibly supplant that series in this particular version of meme-ability. Parks and Recreation, possibly. Occasionally, Modern Family. But there's a new kid on the block that is scratching that very itch: ABC's wonderful new sitcom Abbott Elementary, which started airing in early December on Tuesday nights. (For cord cutters, it also streams on Hulu.)
The series—created by and starring Quinta Brunson, who you might know best from HBO's A Black Lady Sketch Show or her own internet presence—has breathed new life in a format that was possibly dead: the network mockumentary sitcom. For viewers who have maybe tired of their persistent rewatches of the aforementioned shows on streaming services, Abbott Elementary hits those notes and then some, accomplishing the rare feat of bringing a Twitter-savvy audience, more likely to tweet about HBO dramas than anything on a broadcast channel, back to the comfort of the Big Four.
In Abbott, Brunson plays Janine Teagues, a passionate second grade teacher at an underfunded public school in Philadelphia. Whereas her colleagues are either jaded to the institutions' problems or on the verge of burning out, Janine is optimistic about changing things from the inside, sometimes almost delusionally so. (If we're talking about her forebears in television, she's got a bit of Leslie Knope's outlook on and fervor for her work, minus the Obama-era fetishization of politicians.)
Janine also occupies a fascinating position in her little universe. She's from Philly, so she's not one of the Teach for America interlopers that Abbott Elementary parodies—do-gooders from outside communities who, after graduating from expensive liberal arts colleges, teach for a couple years at an underprivileged school before bolting for more lucrative jobs. As Jacob, Chris Perfetti more fits that mold, constantly tossing around references to his resume and turning into Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society when Abbott briefly establishes a gifted program. But at the same time, Janine has a hopefulness that some of her fellow educators have long abandoned.
A series like Abbott is only as good as its ensemble, and Brunson has assembled an incredible one. Sheryl Lee Ralph, the Tony nominee who was in the original Broadway cast of Dreamgirls, is Barbara Howard, the stern veteran who Janine is still trying to impress as if she were one of her students. Millennials will rejoice with glee to learn that Chessie from The Parent Trap, a.k.a. Lisa Ann Walter, is there as Melissa Schemmenti, the tough-as-nails Italian broad from South Philly, who can get anything she wants off the back of the truck from a guy she knows. Meanwhile, Janine has what is almost sure to be a will-they-won't-they in substitute teacher Gregory, played by Tyler James Williams, all grown up from his days as Chris on Everybody Hates Chris.
But it's stand-up Janelle James who is arguably the breakout star. James is Ava, Abbott's most ingenious invention: The principal who truly does not care about her job and would rather be an influencer. Some might hear this description and choose to play Ava as a Kardashian-wannabe with vocal fry and a snootiness. Not James, who makes Ava a gal who just wants to have a good time—not malicious, just clueless, and able to turn any line of dialogue into a joke.
The magic of Abbott Elementary isn't just that its characters feel fully formed even early into its run and that the cast has that kind of alchemic chemistry that makes sitcoms shine. Brunson is pulling off a premise that's both brilliant and tricky. Setting a workplace comedy in a struggling school is a tightrope walk, but Brunson and her writers manage to make Abbott Elementary neither maudlin nor flippant. It inspires action without leaning on trite "inspiring" tropes. One episode about Abbott teachers fulfilling their classroom wish lists through Ava's TikTok viral videos has prompted at least one viewer to go ahead and purchase needed supplies for teachers.
At the same time, it's flat out very funny, mixing physical humor—Janine trapped on a ladder, for instance; the serious Gregory awkwardly dancing—with ace writing. Kids are used sparingly but remind the audience that these people are dealing with impressionable, goofy young minds. They aren't the focus because Abbott Elementary is built for the long term. The students will come and go, but Janine and her fellow teachers will be there for years. Presumably, they'll also be gracing our TV screens and becoming a fabric of our lives the way the best sitcoms do.