In the 2000s and 2010s, network sitcoms were some of the biggest shows on television — think “The Office,” (2005–13) “Modern Family” (2009–20) and “The Big Bang Theory” (2007–19). These days, the era of broadcast dominance is in the past as most network comedies have very little to offer compared to their streaming counterparts. That’s why it’s been such a pleasant surprise to see “Abbott Elementary” (2021–), a half-hour sitcom on ABC, emerge as one of the sharpest and funniest comedies of the last few years.
Inspired by the upbringing of Quinta Brunson, the show’s creator, producer, writer and star, the series chronicles the everyday lives of second-grade teacher Janine Teagues (Brunson) and her colleagues at Abbott Elementary, an underfunded and predominantly Black public school in Philadelphia. Janine’s peers include enthusiastic young history teacher Jacob Hill (Chris Perfetti), newly hired first-grade teacher Gregory Eddie (Tyler James Williams) and Melissa Schemmenti (Lisa Ann Walter), a second-grade teacher with lots of connections. The show’s best supporting performances come from Sheryl Lee Ralph as Barbara Howard, a veteran kindergarten teacher, and Janelle James as the inept Principal Ava Coleman. The series, which premiered in December of last year, returned for season 2 this fall.
The series premiered to positive critical reviews last winter and set new records for the network. The premiere of season 2 in September came after the show received several high-profile awards, including Emmys for Ralph’s performance and Brunson’s writing. “Abbott” tackles real-life issues that underfunded schools face in an honest and refreshing way that has struck a chord with many viewers, including teachers and former students who see their own experiences reflected in those of the characters. The reason it stands out among the multitude of network comedies is because its stories and characters feel so real. In the world of “Abbott Elementary,” there are no villains; every character is complex and multifaceted. Although it may be tempting to characterize the narcissistic Principal Coleman as the antagonist, her acts of selflessness in season 1 prove that in one way or another, everyone at Abbott is doing their best to look out for the people around them.
Of course, the show wouldn’t be a successful comedy without strong writing. “Abbott” is the perfect example of what representation in the writer’s room can do — many of the show’s writers are Black and women, and several writers have backgrounds in education. The series explores problems that many schools face, like undersupplied classes and broken bathrooms. In one especially funny episode, Janine asks Ava to use the school’s grant money to buy a computer for the students at a pitch meeting modeled after “Shark Tank.” Although the plot details can at times seem over the top, the story is always grounded in reality.
“Abbott Elementary” benefits from an exceptional cast, led by Brunson, who plays the optimistic Janine, a young teacher determined to fix the broken system she works in. Ralph’s performance as Barbara, the experienced educator who Janine looks up to, is a gift that keeps on giving. James delivers a standout performance as Principal Coleman, a horrible boss who’s hard not to like. Season 2 dives deeper into the lives of many of the characters as we learn about the school’s financial troubles, Jacob’s passion for improv and Melissa’s rivalry with her sister. We’re also introduced to some great new characters, such as Ashley Garcia (Keyla Monterroso Mejia), a friendly but absent-minded teachers’ aide who butts heads with Melissa.
At the end of the day, “Abbott Elementary” is a testament to the effort that teachers put into giving their students the best experiences they can, even when resources are slim. For the most part, the show follows the classic sitcom formula — with “talking heads” moments that allow characters to share their candid thoughts with viewers, and a “will they or won’t they” plotline developing between Janine and Gregory (they will, eventually) — but there’s much more to the show than that. Along with hilarious writing and a talented cast, the series stands out for its willingness to criticize the failures of America’s public education system and address issues of class and race, which is unusual for a sitcom. The series spreads plenty of positive messages as well: By celebrating Janine’s optimism, highlighting Barbara’s tenacity and suggesting that maybe Principal Coleman isn’t so bad after all, “Abbott” reminds viewers to find the good in everyone. The educators of “Abbott Elementary” don’t just teach lessons to their students — they teach lessons to us as well.