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The first episode of Abbott Elementary, set in a perpetually cash-strapped public school, ends with one of its teachers savoring a minor victory. “I was called, I answered, and now I know, even with no help from the higher-ups and no help from the city, I can get this job done,” she says proudly.
Then the episode cuts away to another minor setback — this one involving a toilet that sprays jets of water when flushed — and back to the teacher. “But money would still be nice, though,” she adds.
Airdate: Tuesday, Dec. 7
Cast: Quinta Brunson, Tyler James Williams, Janelle James, Chris Perfetti, Lisa Ann Walter, Sheryl Lee Ralph, William Stanford Davis
Creator: Quinta Brunson
Abbott Elementary is full of moments like that, that mine comedy from the push-pull between can-do optimism and clear-eyed realism. In that sense, it feels like a cousin to both Parks and Recreation and Superstore. Like the former, it’s a mockumentary about a plucky heroine (Janine, played by series creator Quinta Brunson) who sincerely believes in making a difference with her public-service job. Like the latter, it acknowledges and addresses the callous indifference of the system they’re working in, which no amount of individual resourcefulness can overcome alone. And like both, it’s a show that begins with a strong sense of promise, even if it needs a bit of fine-tuning before it comes fully into its own.
The ingredients are there, though. In the three nonconsecutive episodes sent to critics, Abbott Elementary already feels like a reliable source of laugh-out-loud moments, thanks to sharply drawn characters and a winning cast. A precise sense of comic timing means the show often dishes out jokes before we even know to expect them. Put another way, it’s funny to see the janitor, played by William Stanford Davis, teaching children about the Illuminati; it’s funnier as a rapid smash cut in the middle of a larger conversation about understaffing.
Janine, a second-grade teacher who’s been at the school for a little over a year, is the character who most embodies the spirit of the show — earnest, upbeat and prone to letting her good intentions overwhelm her common sense, with sweetly amusing results. Surrounding her are staff members offering varying degrees of support in her mission to change the school for the better. Three episodes in, some of the biggest laughs come from specific character details that just seem to track. Of course Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph), a prim and proper Christian woman, has a giddy crush on a blandly handsome news anchor (“That non-region diction,” she sighs). Of course Ava (Janelle James), the cheerfully self-absorbed school principal, is a doomsday prepper who sees TikTok stardom as her true calling.
True, there are still some wrinkles to be ironed out. Young teacher Jacob (Chris Perfetti) is little more than a collection of liberal white guy stereotypes, and so far works better as a sidekick for Janine than as a protagonist in his own right. (Which, in fairness, might be the idea: “That is how change works — someone does something and someone cosigns it!” is how he voices his support of Janine in one episode one.)
And like most shows this young, Abbott Elementary is still calibrating the relationships between some of its characters. It’s not really clear, for example, whether Ava is meant to come across as a low-key villain, a harmless weirdo, or something in between. Meanwhile, it might be too clear where the Gregory-and-Janine dynamic is headed — they seem to be retracing the same steps as Jim and Pam before them, down to the crappy boyfriend who doesn’t appreciate her enough.
Still, it works well enough to deliver a consistent good time — and I suspect that given time, Abbott Elementary could blossom into something truly special. What stands out in its initial episodes is a willingness to deal with class head on, while also finding humor in the characters’ situations. (Race is addressed less explicitly in the episodes I screened, but the casting makes a point in itself — Abbott Elementary features a majority Black cast surrounded by majority Black kid extras, as befits its West Philadelphia setting.) Most of the storylines revolve in some way around the teachers trying to meet the needs that their city refuses to, whether that’s by fixing a flickering light bulb or fulfilling a teacher wish list. While each predicament resolves within 22 minutes, the larger issues driving them do not. “The city doesn’t always give us the funding we need for our supplies,” says Janine in one episode, frustration simmering just under her smile. “I know I keep saying that, but it keeps being true.”
If Abbott Elementary can keep finessing that balance — between uplift and honesty, celebrating individual moxie and critiquing systemic failures — it could yet grow into a series as thought-provoking as it is crowd-pleasing. Perhaps it could even become a minor force for change, like Janine herself. And as every teacher knows, there’s nothing more rewarding than watching a new kid grow into their full potential.
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