Hit ABC Show Returns For Confident Start to Sophomore Season

Dec 24, 2022

It’s been years since a network TV comedy took off like ABC’s “Abbott Elementary,” a show that felt both familiar and fresh at the same time. Sure, it has a structure that recalls hit network shows like “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation,” but it also has rich characters that feel almost instantly like people we know, brought to life by an ace ensemble. While network TV largely ceded the war to cable and streaming services years ago, “Abbott Elementary” has proven there’s still life on ad-supported television, winning Emmys last week for Outstanding Writing and Outstanding Supporting Actress (Sheryl Lee Ralph). And perhaps what’s most interesting to consider regarding the state of “Abbott Elementary” is how few classic comedies had this kind of success from the very beginning. Most of the best comedies of all time took a year or two to find their footing—for the writers to figure out how to write to the strengths of their ensembles. In other words, if “Abbott” is this good now, imagine where it goes in season next.
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Viewers won’t have to imagine much longer as the teachers and students in this Philly school return to ABC on September 21. As is often the case with network TV reviews, not much has been provided to critics, but the season premiere is excellent, a great example of why this show works, and the follow-up highlights some of the issues that simmer under the surface of this socially conscious program while also being pretty damn funny in its own right.
Creator/writer/star Quinta Brunson took the mockumentary workplace comedy set-up of a show like “The Office” and transferred it to Willard R. Abbott Elementary School, a predominately Black and woefully underfunded institute of early learning. Brunson plays Janine Teagues, an optimistic second-grade teacher who struggles against ineptitude, bureaucracy, and the general attitude of toddlers. Brunson’s outlook really drives this show, a wonderfully comedic optimism laced with enough realism to understand the roadblocks faced by teachers across the country. Janine is often offset against the other teachers as the one who is being naïve, but the show embraces her passion, and often reveals how she brings the same thing out in others. With such little support, sometimes it’s all teachers have to get through the day.
The ”others” in this case have developed into one of the stronger comedy ensembles in the current era of television. Ralph is a stand-out as Barbara Howard, a kindergarten teacher who has seen it all. The veteran actress walks a fine line with Barbara, never falling into a trap wherein this character could have bitterly looked down on someone like Janine. She allows herself to be the butt of the joke sometimes too. The largest percentage of laughs per episode probably goes to principal Ava Coleman, played with ace comic timing by Janelle James. Ava’s selfishness allows for some of the show’s broadest humor, but James somehow finds a way to keep the character from becoming a true villain. Lisa Ann Walter, Chris Perfetti, and Tyler James Williams are all carving out more distinct characters with each episode, and William Stanford Davis as the school custodian Mr. Johnson, will be upgraded to regular in season two.
The season premiere, “Development Day,” naturally picks up after the summer hiatus for Abbott Elementary School on a workshopping day wherein the teachers and staff plan the upcoming year. It allows the writers to pick up where they left these characters in the season finale, particularly regarding Janine’s breakup with boyfriend Tariq (Zack Fox), who has moved away. The break-up is clearly a good thing for Janine long-term while also presenting some immediate financial difficulties. Brunson has a gift for weaving realistic elements into her sitcom structure, subtly including here how breakups can often present practical problems like having bills to pay and an ex-boyfriend with a lot of parking tickets. The show has been lumped in with the “nice comedy” trend of late, led by “Ted Lasso,” but it feels like Brunson is just edgy enough to increasingly inject just enough class and social commentary into her episodes to make that reading of the program feel a little simplistic. No one wants a super-realistic “Abbott Elementary” because the state of America’s education system would shock most people, but Brunson also understands the opportunity she has to influence a conversation that more people should be having about it.
It would be silly to spoil the jokes of the premiere, but it’s one of the strongest in terms of pure laughs-per-minute in the history of the show, while also being a little playful with its title in that the episode is also about Janine’s “Development” as she enters a new chapter of her life, her first without Tariq since she was in middle school. It has a great balance of physical and verbal humor, even offering some nice regional jokes for anyone who knows about the terrifying mascot of the Philadelphia Flyers. And it pushes the Jim/Pam-esque budding romance between Janine and Williams’ Gregory down the track toward its inevitable conclusion. If there’s a concern at this stage in the show, it’s that Brunson is going to drag out this flirtation for too long, repeating the same obvious beats, but she’s smart enough as a writer to know that comedy gets stale when it gets repetitive. The second episode, “Wrong Delivery,” gets the school year rolling with a little less laughter but a sharp commentary on inequity as the gang goes to a nearby charter school, a place with so much funding that it has an actual computer lab.
Reviewing two episodes as reflective of an entire second season is a little silly, but it’s the way the networks play this game. However, there’s little reason to suspect that Brunson and her team are going to fall off a creative cliff anytime soon. If anything, it feels like they used the summer to balance out how the show’s writers tune their cast, allowing every supporting player just enough time to shine in both episodes. Of course, being only 15 episodes into a run makes it way too soon to discern this show’s place in comedy history, but it’s starting to feel more and more like “Abbott Elementary” will be a part of comedy class syllabi for years to come. [B+]

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