According to authorities like NPR, Rolling Stone, The Ringer, and CNN, “Abbott Elementary” has brought about a “sitcom renaissance.” The hit show focuses on millennial second-grade teacher Janine Teagues, played by the show’s creator Quinta Brunson, during her second year teaching at Abbott Elementary, an inner-city school in East Philadelphia. In its first season, it has become ABC’s highest-rated show since “Modern Family,” amassing more than 9 million viewers.
With so much acclaim and popularity, one would imagine that Brunson has done something revolutionary, retooling the sitcom genre to fit the streaming format and satisfy the tastes of today’s audience. Ironically, it is precisely the opposite. Abbott Elementary is unique in just how un-revolutionary it is—one could even call it conservative.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say the show meticulously imitates NBC’s classic mockumentaries “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation,” using the same character types, jokes, and day-in-the-life plot structures. More importantly, like sitcoms of the pre-streaming era, the episodes are short (22 minutes) and easily consumable. All this makes “Abbott Elementary” the television equivalent of easy listening: familiar, pleasant, and somewhat formulaic.
The parallels are most apparent in the show’s main characters. Brunson’s perky (and frequently insufferable) portrayal of Teague will immediately bring to mind Amy Pohler’s character Leslie Nopes. Her no-nonsense mentor Barbara Howard, played by Sheryl Lee Ralph, is reminiscent of no-nonsense Ron Swanson, played by Nick Offerman.
Tyler Williams’s Gregory Eddie is a dead-ringer for Jon Krasinski’s Jim Halpert. As one might expect, these characters are funny in the same way those characters were funny, but slightly less so since the gags aren’t original.
However, one character in “Abbott Elementary” who stands out and has rightly received most of the attention is the school principal Ava Coleman, played by Janelle James. Her character is an interesting combination of incompetence, laziness, sass, and silliness that plays off hilariously with the more serious teachers. Her one-liners and roasts of Janine are usually the best moments of the show.
As for the storylines and themes, “Abbott Elementary” stays true to the formula. Janine tries to solve a problem or introduce something new in the school, her colleagues discourage her but eventually join her side, and there’s a positive ending with either a problem solved or a lesson learned. Additionally, there are side plots involving the other characters, some of which are funny (e.g., Gregory hiding that he doesn’t like pizza) and some that fall flat (e.g., Ava prepping for the apocalypse when the power goes out).
For the most part, Brunson’s decision to stick with the familiar works out well. However, there are moments the show feels a little too safe and unsatisfying. All the characters are generally good and well-meaning—even Ava—so there’s little development over the course of the season, and rarely much tension. The plot arcs tidily rise and fall with each episode, so there’s little progression here as well.
However, the show’s biggest flaw may just be the sometimes unbearably light treatment of its subject matter. As a teacher, I’m even more aware than most that an inner-city school, particularly in a city like Philadelphia, is replete with dysfunction and chaos. Teachers at all levels are put through the grinder and have to develop an incredibly thick skin and a healthy cynicism.
In reality, the warm, fuzzy moments are few and far between, and character types like Teague and Jacob Hill (the dorky, woke history teacher played by Chris Perfetti) are not realistic. Indeed, Janine would likely be terminated or suspended on multiple occasions. Of course, if anyone wants a depressingly realistic depiction of teaching in the inner-city, he can watch the fourth season of “The Wire.”
To her credit, Brunson does incorporate a few actual issues teachers deal with, like budgets for gifted and talented programs, introducing technology in the classroom, and negligent parents. So even though the show eschews offering serious commentary on public education, it at least shows some respect to educators and the work we do.
Overall, it remains to be seen if “Abbott Elementary” can match the great heights of its influences. The first season has laid the groundwork for many more seasons to come, but more needs to happen and more risks need to be taken to keep the audience invested.
If it can delve deeper into its characters, do more with the setting, and advance some longer plot arcs, it can go from being a good show with the potential to being a great show that audiences will binge-watch for years to come.