Abbott Elementary is a warm and engaging comedy that you can’t help but for in love with.

by | May 30, 2022 | All, Reviews

It’s unsurprising given the world events of the past couple of years that TV has been turning to more positive, heartwarming comedies for escapism. Shows like Schitt’s Creek and Ted Lasso have given us an antidote to the harshness of life around us, by leaning hard into the warmth of found families and uplifting messages. New Disney+ acquisition Abbott Elementary follows the same pattern.

Streaming in the UK from 1 June, the half-hour comedy aired on ABC in the US as a mid-season replacement and quickly found its audience thanks to its sharp wit, big heart and relatable characters. The show owes much to similar public servants sitcom forerunner Parks and Recreation, utilising the “mockumentary” device to give us the window into the character’s world, whilst platforming a mix of eclectic personalities who are forced to work together.

Based in an elementary (primary) school in one of the poorer areas of Philadelphia, the series was created, written by and stars Quinta Brunson. Brunson had come to fame via her comedic short videos on instagram (You may know her from such viral hits as “Girl Who has Never Been on a Good Date”), and after several guest stints and pilots which failed to take off, ABC finally gave Abbott  Elementary the go-ahead for 13 episodes.

ABBOTT ELEMENTARY –
QUINTA BRUNSON

In the same way Parks and Recreation’s central character is cheerful, idealist Lezley Knope, Brunson is Abbott’s hopeful protagonist Janine, an inexperienced teacher who believes she’s going to change the lives of the children in her care. Of course, the more experienced teachers around her – such as woman-of-God Barbara (played by Moesha’s Sheryl Lee Ralph), and tough, South Philly queen Melissa (Lisa Ann Walter) – know better how the system works, or rather doesn’t.

Janine began work at the school a year previously, alongside earnest, awkward Jacob. The pair are the only remaining new starts from a group of 20, who couldn’t hack the tough conditions and resilient kids. The environment isn’t helped by school principal Ava Coleman (Janelle James). A narcissistic, petty, glamourpuss who cares more about her TikTok followers than her pupils and someone who is constantly aware of the presence of the camera crew. Ava has scammed her way to the top and trampled on the dreams of new substitute teacher Gregory in the process.

Gregory, played by youthful TV veteran Tyler James William (Everybody Hates Chris, The Walking Dead), is a capable, calm, serious young man who very nearly got the job of principal before Ava did a touch of blackmailing and slipped into the position he yearned for. Of course, Gregory is unaware of this turn of events when he reluctantly takes the substitute teacher role in Abbott.

Determined that the role is merely a stopgap, he absolutely won’t get involved in the lives of either the pupils or teachers, his plans are undermined when he meets Janine and is immediately charmed by her wide-eyed positivity and steadfastness.

Janine’s winning personality and heart don’t just capture Gregory’s interest, and despite their resistance to her over-eagerness to win their approval, quickly we see Barbara and Melissa recognise the good in Janine’s intentions and back her up in the fight against Ava and the school board.

Much of the story comes from the teacher’s inventive (and sometimes a tad illegal) workarounds that help them get the equipment and supplies they need to teach their often troubled kids. It’s equal parts alarming and heartwarming to see the lengths teachers have to go to (especially in the US) to be able to do a remotely decent job with their needful kids.

ABBOTT ELEMENTARY
LISA ANN WALTER, JANELLE JAMES, SHERYL LEE RALPH

Brunson is incredibly winning as Janine, making the audience want her to succeed in getting a rug for her neglected pupils to fall asleep on, or to reach that problematic kid that’s transferred into her care. Though it should be noted, that while there is an underlying bleakness from the setting, the comedy always comes first and the situation and stories never feel maudlin or mawkish.

The writing is sharp, sparkling and pulls no punches, whilst adding light touches of farce that inevitably come when children are involved. Much has been made comparing the show to the US remake of The Office and there are elements of this, though Abbott’s adults are far less tragic and embarrassing than the staff of Dunder Mifflin.

With Abbott, we are truly looking at the people on the bottom rung of the ladder of life, who aren’t looking for glory (well, except Ava) they just want to make a difference in the lives of the young people they teach, and it’s the bureaucracy that’s the bad guy. It’s a real love letter to the art of teaching, and the people who go into schools day in and day out not knowing what they’ll face, with the most basic of tools, and do the best they can – for very little gratitude, emotionally or financially.

Abbott Elementary was recently renewed for a second season by ABC.

The Abbott staff are an engaging bunch, with Ava almost instantly becoming an iconic sitcom loveable nightmare akin to Ron Swanson. The dynamic duo of stern god-fearing Barbara and sassy, “knows a guy” Melissa is brilliant writing and fantastic casting that leads to a believable decades-old friendship, counteracting Janine and Jacob’s (Chris Perfetti) floundering attempts to find their place.

As always, these kinds of shows work best when we see how the rag-tag bunch compliment each other and reach their goals whilst fording a friendship that becomes family, and Abbott delivers that aplenty – along with a burgeoning “ship”.

Gregory’s interest in Janine is more than platonic, and are as down-trodden as he is when we discover that Janine is in a relationship with a man who is far below her in the scheme of life. A life-long “music artist” who mooches from his already poor teacher partner, and takes life as seriously as a hangnail. The audience can of course see how much better Janine deserves, and that Gregory is shaping up to be that man.

Gregory finds himself becoming absorbed into the fabric of the building, despite his initial resistance, with his interest in Janine being the catalyst but not the ongoing motivation for his transformation from sub to teacher. And as he gets sucked into the lives of his pupils, and colleagues, so does the audience.

It’s an easy ride, unrelentingly lively and charming, with a cosiness that belies the underlying harsh truths Brunson is delicately dishing out. And after the past couple of weeks, it’s even more warming and touching to follow the lives of these teachers, struggling to do their job despite the circumstances they find themselves in. You absolutely won’t regret spending some of your summer at Abbott Elementary

Abbott Elementary Season 1 is available from Wednesday 1st June on Disney+ in the UK

 

Dawn Glen

Dawn Glen

30/05/2022

Scottish TV obsessive, who has been writing about TV since she sent a letter to Playschool and tracked Neighbours ratings. Co-creator of The Ship Yard, devoted to all slow-burn relationships - an all-consuming passion, especially in Britcoms. Wants to be Victoria Wood when she grows up.

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