Abbott Elementary Review: ABC’s Workplace Comedy Hits the Ground Running
It’s been a rough go for freshman comedies at ABC in recent years; save for the severely underrated Bless This Mess, new ABC comedies have not been able to strike a chord with audiences. The list of single-season failures is rather long – anyone remember Call Your Mother from last year, or perhaps 2018’s Splitting Up Together – yet another broadcast network struggling to find a new direction in the noisy age of Too Much TV. Abbott Elementary, the new workplace comedy from A Black Lady Sketch Show‘s Quinta Brunson, is the best new comedy ABC’s had since Selfie and Fresh Off the Boat premiered during the 2014-15 season.
Abbott Elementary is built on the DNA of both Superstore and The Office, in how it embraces comedic absurdity to highlight the actual, real-life crises faced by the majority of the 1.8 million elementary school teachers working in America today. Set at a woefully underfunded Philadelphia public school, Abbott Elementary follows second grade teacher Janine Teagues (played by Brunson), pushing to keep her composure and optimism as the forces around her – namely the American education system, and her eternally clueless principal Ava Coleman (Janelle James) – obfuscate the goal of, you know, actually educating the future generation of children.
Stylized as a mockumentary following underfunded American schools, Abbott Elementary has the kind of sliding slope premise that could turn into self-indulgent caricatures of morality; however, under the guise of Brunson and executive producers Randell Einhorn (Wilfred, The Office) and Justin Halpern, Abbott Elementary nimbly stays out of its own way in critical moments and lets its comedic delivery and irony speak for themselves. In that way, it very much feels like the spiritual successor to Superstore, able to nimbly move between character comedy and societal observation with a confidence comedies three episodes into existence rarely have (it also uses children like the previous show often used customers, which is a really exciting sign).
It does so through relative simplicity; the plots of the first three episodes have all essentially riffed on “boy, inner city public schools sure have no money!” in ways that could feel really grating or repetitive, in the wrong hands (I can imagine Aaron Sorkin’s version of this show, and it is fucking awful). Smartly, Abbott Elementary has used those elements mostly to establish the excellent comedic timing and chemistry between its main cast – which includes Tyler James Williams as a stoic, awkward substitute, and Sheryl Lee Ralph as Barbara Howard, the no-nonsense, morally upright and stern-faced elementary teacher we all had at some point growing up.
The cast dynamic is really fantastic; though its scope has remained rather small in its first trio of episodes, it has allowed Abbott Elementary to really highlight the richness of its main characters. Even the comedic archetypes – Lisa Ann Walter is hilarious as Melissa Schemmenti, a grizzled Italian woman with a ton of shady connections – are well-constructed, all contributing to a rich mosaic of characters and premises the show could really build upon in coming weeks.
To be fair, nothing Abbott Elementary has done in its opening episodes is revolutionary or particularly innovative – but its mix of familiar elements, set against a tapestry of almost unlimited storytelling potential, is delivered with such a convincing understanding of how the mechanisms of a television comedy work, it easily distinguishes itself amongst the recent generation of desperate comedy pilots. As Abbott Elementary grows, the potential to turn the mild chuckles and thoughtful nods these first three episodes produce into something truly meaningful and resonant is there, and glaringly obvious in its best moments (there is a nail salon scene with Willliams’ Gregory in episode two that is just phenomenal).
Of course, only time will tell whether ABC even lets Abbott Elementary realize its potential – only one of its aforementioned prodigal predecessors survived past 13 episodes, and ABC’s recent record of axing freshman comedies is notoriously long. But I’m really pulling for Abbott Elementary‘s mix of deadpan social commentary, and hilarious oddball workplace comedy – after three episodes, it is a thoroughly deserving first entry on the list of best new shows of 2022.