Abbott Elementary review: Quinta Brunson's sharp school comedy is in a class of its own
The best comedy often comes from the simplest ideas. Regulars hang out in a Boston bar. Office workers get through the day. A married guy lives across the street from his parents. And now: Teachers make do at an underfunded city school. Created by and starring 32-year-old Quinta Brunson, Abbott Elementary (airing Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET on ABC) is a terrifically smart workplace comedy and a loving, funny homage to the men and women on the front lines of public education in America.
Janine Teagues (Brunson) is one year into her role as a second-grade teacher at the Willard R. Abbott Public School in Philadelphia. Though staff turnover is high, and the district is persistently broke, Miss Teagues remains stubbornly idealistic. Janine and her fellow rookies, Jacob (Chris Perfetti) and Greg (Tyler James Williams), are frequently checked by Abbott's more experienced teachers, Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph) and Melissa (Lisa Ann Walter) — and everyone is consistently thwarted by the school's blithely unqualified principal, Ava (Janelle James).
Each episode introduces a basic obstacle — a flickering fluorescent bulb in the hallway, a complicated new software used to track student's reading scores — and transforms it into a witty philosophical battle between Janine's sincere optimism about making the world a better place for the Black and brown kids under her charge, and Barbara's resolute realism about systemic inequality and bureaucratic incompetence. (In one of Abbott's subtlest running jokes, only Jacob — one of the school's two white teachers — constantly interjects race into conversations as part of his desperate attempts to be an ally.)
Thanks to the publicity-hungry Ava, a film crew is on hand to cover "poorly managed public schools." The mockumentary trope is about five years past tired, but Brunson's gamble pays off: The cameras only exacerbate Janine's endearing self-consciousness and nervous oversharing. (The actress deserves a spot next to John Krasinski in TV's Side Glance Hall of Fame.)
Abbott is a good show that could grow into greatness, in part due to its excellent ensemble. (If you missed the premiere last month, it's currently streaming on Hulu.) Ralph commands her scenes as Mrs. Howard, a stately "woman of God" who can abash even the rowdiest student with a single look, even if she can't figure out how to log on to a tablet. James radiates a boisterous confidence as the cheerfully vain Ava, while Williams' laconic, conflict-avoidant Greg brings an essential dose of deadpan energy to the group.
"No-frills" may not be a welcome descriptor for a public school, but it should be aspirational for TV comedy. Abbott does the most with the basics: a smart conceit, sharp writing, the right cast. Other sitcoms should be taking notes. Grade: A-
Abbott Elementary premieres Jan. 4 and airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.
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