Even in ordinary times, whatever those are at this point, being a teacher is challenging, especially in a public school. Teachers must command the attention of a roomful of squirmy kids for multiple hours a day, sometimes without access to the supplies they need. They face endless amounts of lesson planning, a task that frequently winds up dominating their evenings. The parents of their students are often either oblivious or so overly invested in their children’s education that it seems reasonable to tell them to get a hobby, even though that’s probably not the best thing to say during a parent-teacher conference. It’s tough, and that much tougher at a time when COVID has left many schools so short-staffed that every day feels like an emergency. Teachers need to feel understood and need a release, now more than ever.
Abbott Elementary, the ABC comedy currently in the midst of its debut season, seems designed to offer both. Created by and starring Quinta Brunson, formerly of A Black Lady Sketch Show, the series focuses on the faculty at an underfunded West Philadelphia public school where the teachers are resigned to always doing more with less and the principal (a hilarious Janelle James) is more interested in self-promotion than the nitty-gritty details of leading. In a recent episode, a woman from the community shows up in the front office at Abbott, eager to donate a printer to the school. Janine Teagues, the teacher played by Brunson, tries to explain that they don’t need a printer but that there is a list of items online the staff actually could use. “I don’t know what that is,” says the woman, leaving the printer while noting that she couldn’t find the cord and “it also smokes.” This is what being a teacher is like: telling people you need a life jacket only for them to respond by handing you a kazoo.
While Abbott Elementary is set in the present day, it’s a version of 2022 where there’s no pandemic to confront (at least so far). Which is fine, because there are enough frustrations for these curriculum-followers to manage without adding a pandemic. Bringing back the faux-documentary style popularized by comedies like The Office and Modern Family, Abbott Elementary frequently has its characters talk directly to the camera, addressing a group of filmmakers we never see (again, at least so far) who are attempting to capture the realities of working in a city public school. Janine, a young and extremely eager second-grade teacher, often serves as the guide to what’s going on at Abbott, where she is so hyped to change things for the better that sometimes she goes too far. In one episode, when she realizes that a flashing lightbulb in a hallway is scaring a young student, Janine takes it upon herself to change it. Naturally, she knocks out power to the whole building.
The more experienced teachers, including South Philly native Melissa Schemmenti (a wonderfully salty Lisa Ann Walter) and the well-respected, old-school Barbara Howard (Sheryl Lee Ralph, simultaneously dignified and funny) are seasoned enough to have learned that you can’t fix everything. In some scenes, they can barely hide their eyerolls at Janine’s can-do spirit and the ecoconscious, overly chatty Jacob (Chris Perfetti), another younger faculty member. Then there’s Greg (Tyler James Williams), a substitute teacher who is not sure how invested he wants to get in teaching at Abbott and has a few things to learn about relating to children. (When his students draw pictures of him, for instance, he doesn’t recognize who or what is in their artwork, assuming in one case that a child has colored a portrait of Don Cheadle.) All of them report to James’s Ava Coleman, a principal who cares about her staff, but cares just as much about building her TikTok following and hitting on any attractive man she sees. (She keeps her student files organized using the system “sexiest dads.”)
With a network sitcom like this one, bound to the time limits and structures of the genre, it can sometimes take a while to establish an identity and find a comfort zone with its characters. Parks and Recreation, a show whose sensibility overlaps somewhat with Abbott Elementary’s, didn’t settle into either until its second season. (Some might even say third.) But Abbott Elementary knows what it’s doing and who its personalities are almost right out of the gate. As of this week’s fourth episode, the characters are already starting to feel as recognizable as family, and the laughs are coming harder and faster.
The latest installment, “New Tech,” is a classic, well-executed example of contemporary workplace comedy. The primary story line involves a new type of software the teachers are being forced to use to track student performance and, if the results are strong enough, Ava reminds them, hopefully gain more funding. During a tutorial in which all the staff are given tablets to use, Barbara is immediately flummoxed but doesn’t want to let on that she can’t grasp new technology, so she pretends she’s mastered it and also totally gets how computers and the internet work. “If you wouldn’t mind excusing yourself,” she says, cutting short a conversation with Janine, who is absolutely desperate to help her, “I’m a little behind on my Hotmail correspondences.”
You don’t have to work in a school to relate to the generational digital divide, which is an issue in practically every workplace. In that way, Abbott Elementary is accessible to everyone, whether you’ve taught or not. But specificity is the show’s strong suit. Brunson and her fellow writers have a sharp eye and ear for the dynamics between teachers, students, and administrators. It surely helps that Brunson’s mother worked as a Philadelphia teacher for 40 years and that, as Brunson explained in a letter to critics, her stories inspired the series. This is a sitcom, sure. But the world it builds rings with authenticity.
There are occasionally some extremely local Philadelphia jokes, and those too hit with the pinpointed accuracy of a laser beam. In the second episode, several faculty members gather in the teachers lounge to watch the local Action News broadcast largely because of anchorman Jim Gardner, the actual longtime newsman on the city’s ABC affiliate. When Melissa overhears Jacob refer to her as a “Southern Philly type” — “South Philly,” she corrects him with detectable disdain — Jacob tries to turn his comment into a compliment: “Honestly, it’s the best part of our beautiful city. I love how you guys will just, like, park anywhere.”
But what Abbott Elementary does best of all, and at a time when it’s especially vital, is show how passionate many teachers are despite all the struggles and grief that go along with their chosen profession. Given the heated debate in countless school districts about keeping classes virtual or returning to in-person learning, it’s easy to forget that many, if not most, teachers are decent people trying to do their best to teach our kids and fill in a lot of societal gaps, a task that shouldn’t fall entirely on schools in the first place. If you’re a teacher who’s been working hard for years, and who is under even more stress during this pandemic, you probably just want to feel truly seen. Abbott Elementary definitely sees you.