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Abbott Elementary Does World-Building as Well as Any Fantasy Show

The ABC sitcom is brilliant at finding comedy in physical spaces.
  • Quinta  Brunson and Tyler James Williams consider an upstairs bathroom (Photo: Gilles Mingasson/ABC)
    Quinta Brunson and Tyler James Williams consider an upstairs bathroom (Photo: Gilles Mingasson/ABC)

    Abbott Elementary is great with physical comedy — Janine falling off a chair, kids racing through the halls — but it’s also brilliant with spatial comedy. As much as any show on TV, it taps the potential of physical environments, and that makes its world feel uncommonly big. Instead of some generic school, this show is set in a highly detailed, ever-expanding funhouse of classrooms, supply closets, and upstairs bathrooms, all waiting to be activated for laughs.

    About those bathrooms: In the Season 2 episode “Juice,” Janine (Quinta Brunson) pushes a so-called “healthy” beverage on the kids that makes them need to pee all the time. They go so much that they ruin the plumbing on the ground floor, forcing the teachers to herd the little ones to the upstairs bathrooms the bigger kids use. This is not only the first time we’ve ever heard about the other set of restrooms, but also the first time we’ve seen the upper floor. That alone shows flair, since the writers are willing to invent a new location for the sake of a joke. And once they’ve invented it, they expertly exploit it. We get a sight gag of kids in a disorganized bathroom line. We get quips about second graders trudging up there to do their business. We get a spectacular bit about Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph) smashing the plumbing with a bat. Even if we never see this part of the school again, it’s been mined for comic gold.

    There are laughs aplenty in the recurring spaces, too. The garden by the school can be a hideaway where Barbara and Jacob (Chris Perfetti) trade gossip, a tiny fiefdom where Gregory (Tyler James Williams) exerts his need for control, or a slapstick playground where people bury weird things for their colleagues to dig up. Likewise, the gym-slash-theater has been the site of Janine and Jacob’s “desking” videos, a performance by the Story Samurai, and the base of operations for kids hoarding Halloween candy. In a sign of just how good the writers are at keeping things fresh, the room is used differently in each of those situations: The comedy of cramming a bunch of desks into a small space isn’t the same as the comedy of nine year-olds building a sugar-based society.

    The most ingenious use of the gym is in the episode “Egg Drop.” As various teachers climb up a ladder to drop eggs to the floor below (in the name of science, of course), the show makes height itself part of the joke. The sight of tiny Janine climbing into the sky, the sweet anticipation of waiting for her eggs to hit the floor with a splat: These touches prove the top of a room can be just as funny as the bottom. The scene also prods our imaginations, inviting us to wonder if there are other areas of the gym we haven't yet seen.

    Obviously, Abbott Elementary has ventured outside the school: to a wealthy private school down the street, to a zoo where field trips turn to chaos, and to several of the teachers’ homes, even if Melissa (Lisa Ann Walter) would prefer not to have visitors. Those spaces are used well, but it’s the endlessly flexible approach to Abbott itself that captures the show’s excellence at world-building. The characters may describe it as a rundown firetrap where last year’s calendar covers up a hole in the wall, but we know better. We know it’s a smorgasbord of comic potential. We know there are 100 new rooms just waiting to serve whatever story might need them.

    The Abbott Elementary Season 2 fall finale, "Holiday Hookah," airs December 7 at 9:00 PM ET on ABC.

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    Mark Blankenship is Primetimer's Reviews Editor. Tweet him at @IAmBlankenship.

    TOPICS: Abbott Elementary, ABC, Chris Perfetti, Lisa Ann Walter, Quinta Brunson, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Tyler James Williams