Aided by the persistent popularity of “The Office,” mockuumentary sitcoms have become a consistent form of televised comedy. With little explanation for why characters sit down and speak directly to the camera, these faux documentaries allow for quick insight, quicker cuts (usually to a joke), and plenty of deadpan humor. In the case of Quinta Brunson’s ABC sitcom “Abbott Elementary” it’s part of the political commentary at the center of the show itself.
Brunson, the head writer and executive producers, also plays Janine Teagues, a second-grade teacher at the eponymous Philadelphia school. Like many young teachers, Janine is idealistic and desperate to make a change in the lives of her students. But the school’s chronic lack of funds, coupled with a narcissistic school principal, leaves Janine and the other Abbott teachers wearing multiple hats, from educator to janitor to electrician.
While not only a workplace comedy, “Abbott Elementary” uses its setting to make snide comments about the state of the public education system, particularly in communities of Black and brown people. Janine and the other teachers all have a passion for learning, though some are more cynical about it than others. Melissa (Lisa Ann Walter) and Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph) have been at Abbott for quite a while, despite understanding that the average tenure of an educator there is two years — because of the school’s uncorrected underfunding. So while they stick with the job out of love, they’ve also been hardened to what they must do to serve their students.
Much of the humor is derived from either the painfully true tales of what schoolteachers endure in an underserved community or Janine’s blind earnestness to do everything herself. Brunson is wonderful embodying the teacher everyone wishes they had (or might have had had they gotten there earlier). With her big smile, Janine sees every child as a star. Her concerns for them are certainly warranted, whether derived from their interest in “American Gangster” or their fear of going down a hall reminiscent of “The Shining.” But like every great comedienne, Janine’s problem is her attempts to fix things end up making everything worse.
Janine’s hero is Ralph’s Barbara Howard, a veteran teacher who refuses to conform to things like new technology. As Janine says regularly, Barbara is the teacher Janine aspires to be. But Barbara finds her would-be-mentee annoying. The Lucy and Ethel of this series, Brunson and Ralph are comedy gold, with the former’s chipper attitude hitting the brick wall that is Ralph’s tired apathy. Both women love their job, but Barbara is aware that school principal, Ava (a delightfully daffy Janelle James) won’t do anything about its issues, just like the last principal and the principal before that.
The critiques of the public school system are broad but razor-sharp in their incisiveness. One episode is devoted to the teachers’ struggle to get their supply wishlists fulfilled — which packs an added punch coming just a week after real-world video was released of 10 teachers from South Dakota fighting against each other for dollar bills toward the same end. Janine enlists Ava’s help to make a snazzy viral video that will entice strangers to buy the teacher’s supplies, only to have things take a turn when Ava crafts a video for Barbara reminiscent of a depressing ASPCA call to action. Another episode, focused on a reading app, leaves Barbara wondering if there’s a grander desire to just pass kids along than actually helping them learn in ways that would benefit them.
Ralph and Brunson dominate, but the supporting cast is equally comical in different ways. Walter, as Melissa Schemmenti, drops into every episode with an old school Mafia moment, from asking if the cameraman is Sicilian to bringing in a union guy telling the children about a riot — which leads to a great discussion about how history often plays down aggressive moments that produce change in favor of compromise. Chris Perfetti, as the “woke” teacher Jacob Hill, becomes the butt of several jokes focused on his desire to look progressive. And Tyler James Williams, as newcomer Gregory Eddie, becomes the eyes through which the audience sees everything. Williams’ facial expressions are the best as he watches all the insanity around him unfold.
“Abbott Elementary” should be everyone’s new comedic obsession, with a cast that’s not only funny but who’ve already formed an honest, connective chemistry. Quinta Brunson’s sitcom always feels heartfelt, even when it’s criticizing a system that’s overworking teachers and letting down students. Sheryl Lee Ralph and Brunson have a snappy rapport that jumps right off the screen and every joke lands, painfully so at times. This is a series that shouldn’t be missed.
“Abbott Elementary” premieres Tuesday, January 4 at 8 p.m. ET on ABC. New episodes will air weekly.