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Abbott Elementary is making the mockumentary feel fresh again

  • Vox

    After success with The Office, Parks and Recreation and Modern Family, the mockumentary format began falling out of favor "for some good reasons," says Emily VanDerWerff. "The further the mockumentary got from its roots, the more the devices of talking-head interviews and characters mugging to the camera felt like worn-out clichés, rather than the unconventional twists on sitcom rhythms they had been at one time. The Office spent so much time thinking about who was filming the documentary within the show that it built a major plotline around the identity of those filmmakers in the final season. But Modern Family’s team never really bothered to establish why the characters were being filmed. It just didn’t care. So if nothing else, ABC’s new series Abbott Elementary deserves points for making the mockumentary feel fresh again. The new sitcom, set in a cash-strapped public school in Philadelphia, has characters offering long, sardonic looks into the camera and occasional moments when they talk directly to it to share their thoughts. But the series has subtly rethought its approach to this material, so it never feels staid. It honestly took me a few minutes to realize I was watching a mockumentary, so successfully does the show tinker with the format. Creator and star Quinta Brunson’s choices in the pilot underline what’s different here. Other mockumentaries have been built around singular, strong personalities, like Michael Scott or Leslie Knope. Abbott Elementary, however, is built around a kind of everywoman. Second-grade teacher Janine Teagues (Brunson) just wants to do good work and give her kids the education they need, despite how underfunded the school is. She’s navigating an American bureaucracy that increasingly doesn’t care, and a principal (the scene-stealing Janelle James) who has invited a news crew to the school to document everything that’s happening in a weird attempt to feed her own desire for fame." As VanDerWerff notes, "the mockumentary can struggle with having a more relatable protagonist, simply because the fake-documentary format can feel a little dry without someone outrageous there to spur the action. But Brunson’s choice to center Janine and not one of the show’s goofier characters pays off. Yes, some of that is because Brunson plays Janine and knows exactly what will be funny in her specific voice, and some of that is because Brunson turns up Janine’s eager-to-please nature just enough in most scenes, so she seems slightly more heightened. But the chief reason Brunson’s choice works, I think, is due to the very different dramatic stakes of the series compared to most mockumentaries."


    • Abbott Elementary is already hitting its stride after a few episodes: "I generally give shows a full season before gauging their long-term prospects," says David Dennis Jr. "It takes at least that long for characters and writers rooms to find their footing. As great as black-ish has become, for instance, its first season had some growing pains as it tried to establish its voice before its stellar sophomore season. Abbott Elementary, however, delivered one of the better pilot episodes I can remember and is already hitting the marks usually reserved for a second or third season. Each character and their motivations were immediately apparent: Brunson’s Janine Teagues is the hopeful, naive young teacher whose ambition gets her in trouble; Chris Perfetti’s Jacob Hill is the liberal white ally whose performative gestures devolve into parody; Sheryl Lee Ralph’s Barbara Howard is the near-retirement vet who doesn’t bother hoping for better leadership. It only took half an episode to feel like you know these characters. Maybe because we grew up going to school with them. But most importantly, the pilot, and the two subsequent episodes, were hilarious. The cutaways featuring the surly janitor will have you laughing out loud. The shady principal is absurd. And the way the show takes us into a world where the people in charge care least about the kids who need them stings because it’s true."
    • Abbott Elementary has a very clear sense of which actors have eye-catching chemistry together: "One of the things all good sitcoms do is figure out new ways to make the same collection of people bouncing off of each other over and over again funny each time," says Lisa Weidenfeld. "There’s an art to it, so that each time, say, Leslie and Ron interact, it’s still funny, and ideally over time, part of what makes it funny is your expectation of how that conversation will go. Abbott Elementary still has plenty of territory to cover in terms of who among its core cast is funniest together, but going by the early episodes, the show has a very clear sense of which actors have eye-catching chemistry together." Weidenfeld adds: "Still, the show is moving along at a brisk clip for a series still finding its footing."
    • Quinta Brunson created Abbott Elementary intending for viewers to be invested in the school workplace: "I wanted to make the audience fall in love with the workplace, and I wanted the comedy to feel like you, the audience member, were working at Abbott, too," she says. "That informed the mockumentary style — a style I’m already obsessed with, but I think the reason I love it so much is because it makes you feel as if you’re there. Especially with subject matter like this, I think it’s important for the audience to feel like they’re in on an inside joke with our show. If I say to you right now, 'No soup for you,' that only means something to you because you’ve seen Seinfeld, too. And if you haven’t seen Seinfeld, then that means diddly squat to you. To me, the best jokes are inside. They can only live in the world and the soul of that show."
    • Brunson hopes Abbott Elementary gets viewers to laugh -- while thinking about education funding: “It’s a bigger commentary on America’s treatment of lower classes,” says Brunson. “Our country doesn’t care as much about its lower classes as its richer class ... and because of that, schools like Abbott are suffering. Our funding should definitely be going more into the pockets of these schools than it is a billionaire’s venture....We just don’t care enough about it. Because if we did, schools wouldn’t be in that position, and they’d be fully funded already. End of story.”

    TOPICS: Abbott Elementary, ABC, Quinta Brunson