If you follow local news or morning programs or social media, you have seen the inspiring videos. A dedicated teacher receives a surprise donation of back-to-school items, or PPE, or shoes. A teacher asks for school supplies instead of flowers at her funeral. A school employee pays out of pocket to make sure students have warm clothes or even food. To be heart warmingis it not?
Maybe not. Maybe it’s depressing. After all, the unspoken flip side of these tear-jerking tales is that we’ve outsourced our society’s essential needs to the whims of viral philanthropy. These videos replace actual investments by rewarding some lucky winners. We love to to feel good about teachers. But actually doing well by them is rare enough to require commemoration in video. After a few minutes we scroll further.
ABC’s “Abbott Elementary,” the best new sitcom of the season, isn’t an annual supply of pencils. But it’s something else important: continued attention for a profession that, no matter how much lip service we pay to it, is mostly lost to the TV stable of doctors, lawyers and police.
There is an intermittent history of shows about teaching: “Welcome Back, Kotter”, “Boston Public”, season 4 of “The Wire”. But TV tends to see students as the protagonists of school—the Sweathogs stole Gabe Kotter’s show—and even in series that take teaching more seriously, such as “Friday Night Lights,” educators are equal players at best.
“Abbott Elementary,” whose first season ends April 12, is a workplace comedy that sees education as a task performed by complicated, messy people. This also means that his mission and good intentions would mean nothing if it weren’t funny. And it’s hilarious. (As a critic, I appreciate a seven-episode bittersweet niche drama more than most, but sometimes you just want a good sitcom†
Shot in mockumentary style — the camera crew, we’re told, is making a movie about underfunded public schools — “Abbott Elementary” would have fit in any NBC TV lineup of the ’00s, if the network had been comedies with mainly black casts at the time.
Its creator, Quinta Brunson (“A Black Lady Sketch Show”), plays Janine Teagues, a sophomore teacher at a shabby Philadelphia public school where toilet users learn to avoid “Reversey Toilet” (a faulty fixture). in permanent geyser mode) and the history books have recorded the three presidents since George W. Bush.
A nerdy, conscientious people pleaser, Janine craves the endorsement of veterans like the formidable kindergarten teacher Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph). But she struggles to manage her own students — partly because, with her short stature and hummingbird wings, she seems like half a child herself.
Janine has Michael Scott’s need to be liked without his unbearable ignorance, Leslie Knope’s idealism without her steamroller confidence. In another sitcom, she might be a supporting character; there’s even a hint of a Pam-and-Jim long contest between her and Gregory (a perfectly dry Tyler James Williams), a substitute teacher embittered by the loss of the main performance to Ava (a scam-tasty, anything but dry Janelle James) .
Making Janine the point-of-view character feels like a statement. She is no bigger than life. She is at least a few sizes smaller. And this, “Abbott Elementary” suggests, is exactly the kind of person who makes the world work: an ordinary person who swallows her doubts and does the work that needs to be done.
The sharp jokes and character sketches alone make “Abbott” a delight. The show has a well-balanced ensemble, complemented by Jacob (Chris Perfetti), the serious young white who cites Robin DiAngelo, and Melissa (Lisa Ann Walter), a street-smart South Philly resident who “has a man for everything.” †
But what becomes apparent during the first season is how thorough Brunson and her creative team have done when it comes to American education, both the eternal challenges and current dynamics.
The third episode, “Wishlist,” is built around those viral videos to fund my class and the “American Idol”ization of the education they promote. (“I can’t listen to another squeaky voice begging for pencils,” Melissa grumbles.) Janine promos her online inventory with the help of Ava, who may not know much about pedagogy but does have a green screen on office has for recording TikTok videos.
They’re so successful that they secretly decide to do the same for the tech-phobic Barbara (“I’m going to make it rain with glue sticks in that room,” Ava says). The wacky video Ava makes gets a torrent of donations, but Barbara is shocked.
“Is it nice to have stuff? Of course,” she tells Janine. “But my students don’t have to feel any less — than because they do” not have stuff.”
Our culture likes to tell itself educational success stories about a few. But public schools only really work if they work for many. In a later episode, Abbott launches a gifted program where the students can watch baby chickens hatch. When Janine tries to expand the offerings to the rest of her class, the eggs she takes from one of Melissa’s “connections” hatch baby snakes, a gasping amusing scene whose tip is as sharp as a snake’s tooth.
“If you give some kids chickens, other kids get snakes,” Gregory says. “If you get snakes long enough, you think you deserve it.”
Some of the show’s strongest sayings are not delivered in speeches, but simply through its comfort with being what it is. “Abbott” is thoroughly but casually steeped in black culture, as evidenced by scenarios such as when Janine and Ava stage a scooter show at school.
And while the pandemic isn’t showing up, “Abbott Elementary” is feeling full of the moment by highlighting all the social services — counseling, food, crisis intervention — for which communities rely on in-person education. Janine spends an episode planning a meeting with a college student’s mother, whom she assumes is not involved. It turns out that the mother is a nurse who is stuck at work.
You do not need to show an N95 mask to establish the connection. ‘Abbott Elementary’ is essentially about the overworked people serving the overworked. And they’ve all been asked lately to give more than they’ve done.
A drama might tell the same sort of story, but there’s something about a workplace comedy, with its focus on eccentricities and trivial annoyances, that makes it particularly effective. The teachers of “Abbott Elementary” are as imperfect as you are, and this is important. Part of the “heartwarming” story we like to tell ourselves about education is that teachers are saints. Conveniently, you owe nothing to a saint.
In the penultimate episode of the season, on the other hand, “Abbott” gives one of his most powerful lines to his most flawed character. Ava, who has always relied on a combination of delegation and blackmail to keep her job, must give a solo presentation to win the school a funding grant. It’s not going well.
But at the last minute she unexpectedly finds her voice again. “Don’t give us the money because we need it,” she says. “Give it to us, because everyone at Abbott deserves it.” That distinction, between need and earnis the difference between charity and obligation, between compassion and respect.
And sometimes laughing is the best kind of respect you can give. “Abbott Elementary”, thank goodness, is more heartbreaking than heartwarming. It’s the kind of comedy that network TV needs and that deserves education.