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Abbott Elementary: What Comedy's Been Missing

Rebecca May Ristow | A&E Editor

Originally premiering in December of 2021, Abbott Elementary is now on its second season. This is one of, if not the best, shows to be released in recent years. It has been nominated for 12 awards, including several Emmys and People’s Choice. It won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series and for Outstanding Casting. At the TCA awards it swept Program of the Year, both Individual and Outstanding Achievement in Comedy, and Outstanding New Program. These awards are not to be taken lightly. Even if you are someone who doesn’t necessarily believe the critic reviews, I’m here to tell you that Abbott Elementary is worth a watch.

Abbott Elementary tells the story of one school in Philadelphia, and the overworked teachers within it. Largely a commentary on the problems with American public schools, the faculty is often seen trying to fix issues themselves. The show’s description reads, “though these incredible public servants may be outnumbered and underfunded, they love what they do -- even if they don't love the school district's less-than-stellar attitude toward educating children.” The script features an insanely remarkable, and hilarious, critique on how America fails in protecting young people’s education, a story many may find relatable.

The first thing to touch on is this show’s incredible casting. They are flawlessly balanced, featuring an effortlessly diverse group of actors that TV has so desperately been needing. At the core of the show are the teachers, played by Brunson herself, as well as many other stars. Brunson plays Janine, the straight woman of the show. She is a relatively new teacher and is as hopeful as she is naive. One reviewer for The Ringer states it perfectly, writing, “compared to her costars, it’s clear Brunson had the savvy and lack of ego to cast herself as the straight woman” and wow, does she shine. She is lighthearted and non-judgmental, the perfect character to guide us through all of the wacky experiences in the plot, as well as showcase the other characters’ more quirky aspects.

Sheryl Lee Ralph excels as Barbara, the older, seasoned mentor to Janine, who is both intimidating and raw. Her lack of understanding in pop culture is never mocked, but rather mined for lighthearted comedy. What she lacks in that area, she also makes up for in her deep understanding of education and empathy for her students. Janelle James is the surprise standout of the show. While she’s a well-versed comedian, this show is her breakout acting role and she is often a show stealer. She plays Ava, the over-confident, yet incompetent, principal. The cast is filled out by Lisa Ann Walter, Tyler James Williams, and Chris Perfetti, who each bring a beautifully hilarious character to light.

This show also features a classic will they, won’t they dynamic as Janine and Gregory (Tyler James Williams) constantly eye each other from afar and attempt to connect. There’s clear, yet unspoken, feelings between them and while some might equate this to being just like any other sitcom couple, they are uniquely divided. Their dynamic is often comically frustrating as Gregory struggles to understand Janine’s motivation and incredible joy for life. For every smile Janine has, Gregory meets the camera with his judgmental stares. It's clear the two could easily balance each other out, in logic and emotion, but they struggle to meet in the middle. Rather than being a perfect fit off the bat, and the situation keeping them apart, it more so seems that the two have to work to understand each other first. There is work to be done on their characters before they can be in a relationship.

At the end of the day, however, what makes Abbott Elementary so unique is its unflinching and unwavering optimism. The biggest blow to comedy in recent years has been the rise of cynicism and pessimistic satire. Jokes are often demeaning or feature self-deprecation. It has been ingrained into our heads that it is okay, even funny, to hate ourselves. This is, by all accounts, exhausting. Besides this, I also argue that many comedians have lost empathy in recent years. They often other people, make jokes that belittle communities, or play into political discourse. This too is draining. Comedy should be an escape, or at least a moment to feel a sense of togetherness with each other, where we can all laugh at the same things.

What’s so refreshing about Abbott Elementary is its understanding and correction of this problem. The show is empathetic. There are no low-blows, or demeaning rhetoric. Rather, the show is a breath of fresh air. It’s full of sympathy and kindness. The show works best when it shows the power of the teachers working together, despite their differences. While, of course, the show features a critique of the public school system, it does so earnestly, and it's always on the teachers’, and the students’, side. There is honesty in the depiction of teachers that struggle to pay for students’ books, that advocate for more help, but are failed by the government surrounding them. While these topics can be seen as cynical, the writers do a fantastic job reminding people that there is hope for better, and above all, hilarity in even the worst of circumstances.

The show was created by, and stars, Quinta Brunson, who you may recognize from her days as a popular Buzzfeed employee. Brunson, who worked as an online video creator, has an extremely well versed understanding of younger generations and current culture, which makes her comedy far more accessible and relatable to a young audience. The keyword is genuine. The show cares about the issues it tackles: generational divide, class differences, gender, race, and, most of all, systemic issues with education. You can tell that Brunson has a deep understanding of what comedy has been missing in the last few years as she succeeds in creating a commentary that plays for laughs without mockery.

If you want to watch Abbott Elementary it airs on ABC and is available to stream on multiple platforms.


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