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Elyse DurhamSeptember 14, 2022
The cast of ‘Abbott Elementary’ (photo: ABC)The cast of ‘Abbott Elementary’ (photo: ABC)

Is anybody working harder these days than teachers? Though the profession has always come with its share of challenges—long hours, limited resources and near-impossible expectations, to name only a few—today’s educators seem to face more stress than ever, even as Covid restrictions finally lift. Somehow, they must juggle post-pandemic burnout, warlike school board meetings and the once-unthinkable debate of whether they should arm themselves.

So it’s a surprise that the breakout TV hit of the year is a comedy about an urban public school. Abbott Elementary, whose second season premieres on ABC Sept. 21, has charmed viewers and critics alike, racking up stellar ratings, four Television Critics Association Awards and multiple Emmys. The series follows a group of plucky teachers as they give their all to a cash-strapped school in Philadelphia, and it manages to be both hilarious and honest about life in the classroom.

‘Abbott Elementary’ manages to be both hilarious and honest about life in the classroom.

Teachers typically appear in pop culture as one of two types of caricatures. In comedies, they’re vindictive and oafish tyrants (“Matilda,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”). In dramas, they’re flattened into saintlike heroes (“Dangerous Minds,” “Freedom Writers”). Of these two, the dramas may be more damaging: they reduce teachers—and, worse, their students—to the difficulties they face.

Abbott’s teachers encounter the same obstacles found in these problematic dramas. Their young students have seen too much and learned too little; funding is thin to nonexistent; facilities are falling apart to the point of absurdity (you don’t want to know what happens when you flush “Reversy Toilet”). But what sets Abbott apart from its pop culture predecessors is its generosity. Its mockumentary format makes room for the complexity of the teaching experience—and the full humanity of the teachers themselves.

At first glance, these teachers may seem like familiar types. Janine and Jacob, second-year rookies and the last remainders of their cohort (“We started with twenty,” Janine says, like a weary sergeant), are eager and naive. Twenty-year veterans Barbara and Melissa are leery of their younger colleagues’ innovations. Gregory, the substitute, sees his job as a mere stepstool to better things. The charismatic and inept principal, Ava, ignores her subordinates’ plea for more aid and exploits her authority for personal gain (and she’s not above putting a footbath on the school supply wishlist).

Abbott’s teachers are neither saints nor villains.

Naivete and practicality; cynicism and selfishness—in lesser hands, these themes would have doomed ‘Abbott’ to schmaltz and cliché. The show’s creator, Quinta Brunson, who also plays Janine and just won an Emmy for writing the pilot, avoids this fate by allowing her characters to be complicated. Abbott’s teachers are neither saints nor villains. Barbara may introduce herself as a “woman of God,” but she lies about her ability to use new reading software. Melissa has a quick temper (and possible mob connections). Gregory, against all odds (and his own wishes), begins to connect with his students. Janine, whose dedication knows no bounds, uses work as a disastrous catharsis for her personal life, and the people around her suffer for it.

By the end of the show’s first season, each teacher has had to reckon with who they are and how they will survive the next school year. Even Ava is allowed a full arc (turns out inept principals may also be very good at taking care of their grandmothers). Abbott is the rare kind of comedy that allows its characters to change, and that’s part of what makes it so satisfying.

Though ‘Abbott’ acknowledges the hardships of its students’ lives, it never resorts to stereotypes.

It’s also very, very funny, which keeps the show from devolving into an after-school special. As a former educator myself, I am delighted to see someone finally harness the comedic potential of days spent with young children. Anyone who’s set foot in a kindergarten classroom has observed the magical effect rugs have on tiny humans (“like a giant Xanax,” says Janine). “Baby Shark” is indeed, as Barbara observes, “like ‘Back That Azz Up’ for kids.” Quinta Brunson deserved her Emmy for Janine and Gregory’s meet-cute alone, which involves a realistic amount of urine and vomit and still manages to be heartwarming.

The humor in ‘Abbott’ is sometimes silly—see, for instance, the episode about “desking,” or Gregory’s intense dislike of pie (“Fruit should not be hot!”)—but never frivolous. Beneath all the jokes about Philly slang and TikTok trends lie real-world stakes, like the student who naps on the classroom rug during lunch because it’s more comfortable than his own bed, or the second-grader who declares her favorite movie is “American Gangster,” worrying Janine (“I will be having a third talk with your mom about what you’re watching at home!”). After Jacob founds a gifted students program, he wonders whether he is lifting up some of his pupils at the expense of others.

Though ‘Abbott’ acknowledges the hardships of its students’ lives, it never resorts to stereotypes. The kids who fill Abbott’s classrooms are at once innocent, devious, generous, infuriating, brilliant and lazy, just like real children. And, also like real children, they are fiercely loved by their teachers. “Teachers at a school like Abbott have to be able to do it all,” Barbara says. “We are admin, we are social workers, we are therapists, we are second parents.”

You can’t put a price on this kind of dedication—and yet, Janine confesses she makes so little money that she overdrafted her bank account purchasing a donut hole. Why do all this for such a paltry salary? “It’s a calling,” Melissa tells Janine. “You answered.” At its heart, Abbott is a show about vocation, and the tenacity that any vocation requires. When Janine’s ambition sends her teetering toward burnout, Melissa reminds her what’s at stake if she doesn’t pace herself. “We care so much that we refuse to burn out,” she says. “If we burn out, who’s here to take care of these kids?” Reversy Toilet or no Reversy Toilet, we all would have been lucky to have had teachers like these.

More: TV / Education

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