There is a moment in the pilot episode of Abbott Elementary, Quinta Brunson’s warmhearted half-hour mockumentary comedy about the teachers and students of a Philadelphia public school, that illuminates the genius of Janelle James’s portrayal of the self-obsessed principal Ava Coleman. Willard R. Abbott Public School is aging and underfunded, with threadbare rugs and flickering lights, and the documentary crew Ava has invited in is primarily there to document the school’s struggles. But you wouldn’t guess that from Ava’s treatment of the camera as a chronicler of her fabulousness.
In between throwing a smile at the camera after saying, “Aides cost money, and we don’t have that,” and revealing that she used $3,000 from the school system to make a gigantic sign of herself, Ava thanks longtime teacher Barbara Howard (Sheryl Lee Ralph) for her resignation to Coleman’s uselessness — which the principal misreads as support. The breezy way James delivers “So understanding!”, the cocky hand-on-her-hip pose, and her deliberate stroll away from another teacher begging for help come together to make Ava Coleman one of the most entertaining TV villains in recent memory. In a show that is primarily about selflessness, Ava’s ability to twist any situation into one that serves her self-interest is the hard edge that has made Abbott Elementary such a delight to watch each week. And after nine episodes of James’s scene-stealing performance, including this week’s Ava-spotlighting episode “Step Class,” I deliver a plea: Let principal Coleman stay terrible!
Since its premiere on ABC on December 7, Abbott Elementary has steadily amassed a devoted following thanks to the precision of Brunson’s vision, the dimensionality of the series’s ensemble, and the amusing way these characters tackle the challenges public schools have faced for years. Mockumentary comedies like The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Modern Family amassed audiences and awards over time, but it’s arguable whether any of those series was as confident in its first season as Abbott Elementary. Within the pilot episode, the series efficiently establishes the school’s old and new guards, including longtime Abbott teachers Barbara and Melissa Schemmenti (Lisa Ann Walter) as part of the former, and new-to-the-field Janine Teagues (Brunson) and substitute Gregory Eddie (Tyler James Williams), Janine’s will-they-or-won’t-they love interest, in the latter. And standing on the outside of both groups, smirking at their antics and daydreaming about how to wield her power over them, is Ava.
Abbott Elementary is clear from the beginning that Ava is “bad at her job,” as Melissa exasperatedly says during a talking-head interview, and “just the latest in a long line of people who do absolutely nothing,” according to Barbara, and the principal’s ineptitude serves two functions. Broadly, any realistic depiction of an American workplace needs a bad boss, and specifically, positioning Ava as an id-like figure causing mayhem at Abbott also avoids any possibility of mistaking the school’s students as the teachers’ burdens, irritations, or enemies. The long-running hardships faced by the faculty and staff come from bureaucratic and systemic failures outside of their control, and the series is realistic in its quiet observations that much of this, from outdated textbooks to produce-lacking school meals, is unfixable from the bottom up. But the day-to-day chaos manifested by Ava’s immaturity and spontaneity? That’s easier for the teachers to solve, and Abbott Elementary’s episodic format allows James to charm as an ever-flowing fountain of mayhem while the other characters get sketched out through how they grapple with her actions.
If you watched James’s episode of The Standups on Netflix, you’re aware of her talents: the ease with which she can jump from coy flirtation to brusque observations (after batting her eyelashes at the portraits of “white Jesus” that decorated her grandmother’s house, “What a fucked-up religion. Why was Jesus so fine? What was the point of that?”); the liveliness of her physicality (her wide-eyed, loose-limbed recreation of an unnerving altercation with an Uber driver that ended with James “farting for my life in the back” of the car). On Abbott Elementary, Ava is the constant villain of myriad B stories, and James’s performance, as exuberant as it is impish, teases out her standup strengths.
Is there an episode of Abbott Elementary that doesn’t involve some kind of impetuous pettiness from Ava? There is not. The character is designed to play to the cameras, and James is excellent at selling fourth-wall-breaking cutaways as uncontrollable moments of ego: her dead-eyed stare when she asks Janine, “Can you twerk? You don’t look like you can, but I could be wrong”; the snarling way she rejects Janine’s wish of a nice day with “Don’t tell me what kind of day to have. Getting all presumptuous and rude.” James’s line deliveries are always punchy, whether Ava is exasperatedly admitting that of course she plans to sell school equipment for personal gain, realizing that one of the students in the school’s gifted program is aware of how little she works (“We shutting this down. He’s getting too smart!”), or excitedly referencing pop culture in which no one else expresses interest. A running list of things Ava likes: Train to Busan, X-Men, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, The Fast and the Furious franchise, and Pixar movies; this woman, whose video-editing skills are so good that she is convinced people will one day have to differentiate between herself and the other Ava (DuVernay), has taste!
Ava’s variable slyness and jauntiness, coupled with the character’s physical reactions, make her an absurdist counterbalance to the series’s more somber depictions of our overwhelmed public school system. Her mini-arc in the eighth episode “Work Family,” in which she goes from laughing into collapse when she learns about Janine’s boyfriend since eighth grade (“Somebody get me a chair … So he broke? Somebody get me a fresh chair!”) to later acknowledging that Tariq (Zack Fox) “got bars,” is a real journey. And while the side-eye the principal recurrently throws at Janine evokes another classic mockumentary moment — Lucille Bluth’s door-closing on her son Gob, which has experienced its own long social-media life in GIF form — Ava has become a highly memed character in her own right. If getting called into the principal’s office at school is such a bad thing, why does hanging out with Ava seem so fun?
All of that serves as a buildup to “Step Class,” in which Ava finally steps into the A story by volunteering to lead Abbott’s newly formed step club alongside Janine. Ava’s involvement in an optional activity is an unexpected development that both seems to go against her personality (James’s disgusted “I hate school” is a series-best line delivery) and shocks Barbara and Melissa, who have seen Ava pull a George Costanza and push kids out of the way during fire drills. But in a smart move, Abbott Elementary doesn’t soften Ava past recognition. Yes, she easily teaches the student steppers a complicated routine, is revealed to be taking care of her ill grandmother, and tells Janine she appreciates her support of the club, but she also calls Janine “dorky,” refuses her apology for seeming self-serving, and shoves the teacher aside instead of returning a hug. “Step Class” made Ava a person, but refreshingly, it didn’t make her a hero. Abbott Elementary already has enough of those.
To transform Ava into someone who genuinely believes the “children are our future” line from Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love Of All” instead of semi-ironically singing it for the cameras would be a misunderstanding of what makes the character so appealing in the first place. In a series where everyone else is trying to do the right thing, Ava’s single-mindedness in prioritizing herself is a luxury, and James’s performance is a comedic boon. Without Ava as an acerbic anchor, Abbott Elementary’s sincerity could turn into, as the character herself scoffs against, the treacle of a “very special episode” — a narrative turn that isn’t so unusual for mockumentary comedies. After Steve Carell announced his exit from The Office, the series gave its characters collective amnesia and tried to rebrand Michael Scott as a beloved mentor, not someone who terrorized and abused everyone under his thumb. In its fan-service-inundated final season, Parks and Recreation committed itself to fully sanding off Ron Swanson’s prickly edges and flattening the eccentric April Ludgate into a domesticated mom.
But both approaches made the mistake of confusing niceness for worthiness, as if we should have felt bad for being amused by Michael, Ron, or April when they were acting their worst. Here’s hoping Abbott Elementary will continue to sidestep that conflation when it comes to Ava and keep in mind what “Black Bobby Fischer” Malcolm (Jayce B. Johnson) says in the final moments of Abbott Elementary’s sixth episode, “Gifted Program”: “I like Principal Coleman. She’s like a big kid. She’s silly, and she doesn’t have a job.” In her abandon and authenticity, Ava Coleman is living the dream. Let her stay that way.
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