Film and TV

Review: Abbott Elementary Breathes New Life Into the Network Sitcom Scene

Quinta Brunson uses a mockumentary style in her sitcom Abbott Elementary.
Quinta Brunson uses a mockumentary style in her sitcom Abbott Elementary. Screenshot
Being a teacher is a hard, often thankless job, but that doesn’t stop the thousands of teachers in the public school system who have selected it as their vocation. Abbott Elementary takes a comedic look at the teaching profession, and the operations of public schools in a mockumentary style made popular by shows like The Office, Parks and Recreation and Modern Family.

Created by actress/writer/producer/comedian Quinta Brunson, Abbott Elementary has a couple of things going for it that differentiate it from other sitcoms like it that have come before: its setting and its predominantly Black cast. The series is a refreshing take that is a hilarious and warm look at teaching and some of the mundane and insane things that can go on at schools.

The series follows Janine, played by Brunson, a second-grade teacher at a predominantly Black elementary school in Philadelphia. Her fellow teachers range from veterans of the teaching game and fresh-faced millennials who just started their journey as educators, like herself. Janine is the character everything flows through, like a Michael Scott or a Leslie Knope.

But unlike those characters, she isn’t a caricature of an incompetent boss or extreme in any way that makes her seem ridiculous. She is immediately relatable, and everything you would expect a young teacher who actually cares about her job and her students would be like. The show’s ensemble cast shines as well, eith every character sharing the spotlight even when playing supporting roles one episode to having the main plot centered around them in the next.

Tyler James Williams (Everybody Hates Chris), who plays Gregory, a substitute teacher who would rather be a principal rather than a teacher, has been starring on network sitcoms since he was a child and is the perfect fit as the reluctant outsider reacting to an increasingly crazy situation while finding himself ever invested in the school and his co-workers.

Lisa Ann Walter and Sheryl Lee Ralph play Melissa and Barbara Howard, respectively, both veteran teachers with their own quirks. Melissa is the Philly representative that people from the area probably have experience with, and Barbara is the model teacher in the eyes of Janine, who sees her as a mother-like figure. Chris Perfetti plays Jacob, who started out with Janine, and he is the cheery, optimistic idealist who is trying to find his way as a teacher. And then there’s the principal Ava Coleman, played by Janelle James, who is probably the most chaotic and hilarious character on TV right now and is a must-watch whenever she is on screen. The main cast is supported by reoccurring characters like Janine’s rapper boyfriend, played by Zack Fox, and the school’s custodian, played by William Stanford Davis.

The characters seem like they have been on TV for five seasons, and the familiarity you have with them from the jump is a comforting aspect. The series leaves room for development through its characters’ evolving relationships. Pairing off characters in true sitcom fashion for an episode or introducing a conflict among the staff and seeing how they play off each other establishes their dynamics in a lasting way that carries over from episode to episode. It’s what you want from a sitcom. You want to feel like you know the characters and that their personalities matter.

The biggest success of the series is that it is a Black show, but it’s not necessarily about being Black. Its cast is predominantly Black and the children in the school are mostly Black. There’s no trauma plot or a hemmed-in, low-effort, social commentary that seemed like it was put by a network for representation purposes or to be in line with current events or to spark discussion.

The show is organic in its representation, and the authenticity it inherently has, shows. Created by a Black woman, this is an upbeat show about mostly Black teachers making a difference with its own messaging, and a rarity on TV in its casting.

The show does explore what underfunded schools in minority areas go through in funny ways. Issues like lack of resources or the pitfalls of having a gifted program are explored, effectively keeping you laughing and engaged. The series feels like it could go for several seasons and its growth in ratings over the weeks are an indication of that potential. Where some shows would still be trying to find their footing, it has been operating on all cylinders from the jump. Abbott Elementary is reviving the network sitcom and is one of the best things available to watch right now.

Abbott Elementary airs on Tuesdays at 8 p.m. Central time on ABC-TV. It can also be streamed on a number of streaming services.
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Contributor Jamil David is a native Houstonian and Texas Southern University alumnus. He is interested in TV, sports and pop culture. @JMLJMLD
Contact: Jamil David