Abbott Elementary is still in its early days, but much like elementary school students, network comedies need attention and nurturing in order to thrive in an environment that values buzzy streaming titles more and more. Without the kind of fanfare that has heralded many of TV's top comedies, Abbott Elementary has emerged as one of TV's best and funniest shows, featuring a deeply likable ensemble cast playing well-meaning but often beleaguered teachers at an underfunded public elementary school. It is highly worthy of your attention, and it'd be great if we didn't all sleep on one of the best shows on TV simply because it's not HBO Max Emmy-bait. Need more convincing? Here are five reasons why Abbott Elementary deserves your time.
One of the best success stories on TV today belongs to Quinta Brunson. She got her start doing comedic Instagram videos and BuzzFeed Video — gaining early notoriety as the subject of a meme — before breaking through in the first season of HBO's A Black Lady Sketch Show. With Abbott Elementary, Brunson is star, writer, and executive producer of a show she drew from her own life experiences coming up through the public schools of West Philadelphia. The titular school, which she named after one of her most beloved teachers (which led to a super heartwarming moment on Jimmy Kimmel Live last week), is an underfunded Philadelphia public school staffed by a group of dedicated teachers trying hard to battle back against burnout in a system that seems single-mindedly determined to give them nothing. That may not sound like a laugh-riot, but then neither did looking in at a bar full of daytime drinkers, and look at what that did for Cheers. As the young and idealistic teacher Janine Teagues, Brunson makes the perfect lead, someone you root for and believe in, but someone whose can-do attitude often sets herself up for a fall. It's why a cast of supporting characters who both bring her down to Earth and also prop her up is so important, which brings us to…
No shade intended to your Ted Lassos and What We Do in the Shadowses and all of the other insanely good comedy casts on TV, but Abbott Elementary arguably has TV's best ensemble cast right now, packed with talented vets and exciting younger performers waiting to break through. Let's start with Tony Award nominee and original Dreamgirl Sheryl Lee Ralph playing Barbara Howard, the veteran teacher who's seen it all and has learned to not expect much more than the status quo. Ralph brings a weary heart and withering humor to the part. Another longtime veteran of TV and movies who never seems to get her laurels is Lisa Ann Walter, playing tough-talking South Philly lifer Melissa Schemmenti, the second-grade counterpart to Janine. You wouldn't think someone as young as Tyler James Williams could be considered a veteran presence, but Everybody Hates Chris, the show that launched him, debuted in 2005, and since then he's made his mark on shows like The Walking Dead and movies like Dear White People. He plays the new substitute teacher Gregory who might end up making the choice to stick around.
Less familiar faces include Chris Perfetti as Jacob, the well-meaning but deeply un-cool history teacher who joins Janine in her more idealistic gambits. And then there's Janelle James as Ava, the school's deeply ineffective and perpetually face-saving principal, who manages to steal pretty much every scene she's in. Ava is the perfect ridiculous sitcom foil for Janine's oversized idealism, and she's alarmingly adept at social media. If there's going to be a breakout star/character from this show, it's going to be her.
One of the great things about Abbott Elementary is that it celebrates teachers while still having fun with their often sisyphean jobs. This is not a vegetables kind of show that's setting out to lecture its audience on why teachers are important, but it's impossible to walk away from each charming, funny episode without having a deeper appreciation for the job they're doing. Which is particularly timely at a moment when teachers are being demonized and mask mandates have made schools the country's latest political battleground. Abbott Elementary doesn't deal with the pandemic directly, but all of the underlying challenges of underfunded public education which have exacerbated the pandemic certainly are.
Brunson set the series in her native Philadelphia, and it's peppered with local Philly references, something that's earned it a boatload of credit from viewers and critics with local Philly ties. Each episode finds itself slinging around references to Action News, Allen Iverson, and "jawn," so much so that Brunson received an official commendation from Philadelphia's city council. The woman's never going to pay for a hoagie for the rest of her life, and good for her.
If you've been missing the sense of goodhearted camaraderie and the comedy of local professionals striving to do good since Parks and Rec closed up shop in 2015, Abbott Elementary is its natural successor. Both shows feature a soft mockumentary format, and Abbott is well its the way to experiencing the kind of word-of-mouth treatment that Parks and Rec got in itsearly seasons. Network comedies in general are experiencing an encouraging renaissance this year, with NBC's hangout comedy Grand Crew having just premiered and CBS finding unexpected success with the high-concept Ghosts. We're not back to the golden age of network sitcoms yet, but shows like these are a great start, and we shouldn't sleep on any of them.
New episodes of Abbott Elementary air Tuesdays at 9pm ET on ABC, and stream the next day on Hulu.
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Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.