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Abbott Elementary's Quinta Brunson never gave up on the network sitcom

  • The network sitcom was declared dead in 2021, as it was in 2014 and 1999. "These types of proclamations happen so regularly they might as well be a rite of passage," says The Ringer's Charles Holmes. "Typically, the impending doom is inspired by falling ratings, a season of quickly canceled shows, or fear that there will never be another zeitgeisty phenomenon like Friends or The Office until there is one, because TV is pop culture’s greatest reincarnation cycle." Yet Brunson, as the creator, star and executive producer of the ABC breakout comedy Abbott Elementary, never wavered in her belief that the network sitcom still had some life in it. “I’m such a big fan of network comedy sitcoms,” she admits. “Even the bad ones on different networks. I still enjoy watching the 22-minute, commercial-break layout, because there’s something so easy about it to me.” As a millennial, Brunson attributes some of Abbott Elementary's success to appealing to people of her age group after networks began targeting older people. “And to be fair, about a decade ago, millennials were pushed away from that space, which is why everybody wound up in streaming and cable," she says. Abbott Elementary co-showrunner Justin Halpern, whose history with the network dates back to his failed early 2010s CBS sitcom $#*! My Dad Says, says Brunson wanted to make "a great network television show." “She wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I got forced into this,’” Halpern says. “We’ve had a lot of people we’ve developed with or who want to develop or pitch us something and be like, ‘Oh, this is a show I really want to do for cable (or) streaming, but I can’t so I’m going to take it out as a network show.’ And that never works. It’s like you’re dressing up something to be something it’s not.” As Holmes points out, "instead of being confined by the borders of network comedies, Brunson and her team decided to let Abbott exploit every aspect of the form and its history. The main cast is filled with familiar faces from sitcoms of yore like Tyler James Williams of Everybody Hates Chris and Sheryl Lee Ralph of Moesha, but newcomer Janelle James has become the show’s breakout star with her portrayal of principal Ava Coleman. Despite its roots as a broad comedy, the show’s most successful bits lean into the hyper-specificity of Philadelphia life. One cold open revolves around how attractive 73-year-old Philadelphia Action News anchor Jim Gardner is (in fairness, Gardner is very attractive), while another features Brunson’s character, Janine, using Philly slang like 'Boul' and 'Ard' in a lesson about sight words. Most directly, Abbott refuses to hide behind the shadows of TV mockumentary forefathers like The Office and Parks and Recreation."


    • Quinta Brunson recounts her long journey to Abbott Elementary and why she thinks it quickly became a success: "I give ABC a lot of credit for that," she says. "They premiered it out of the Norman Lear special (Live in Front of a Studio Audience), and then they had the pilot up on Hulu for a month so people could watch it and then come back with us when the season started. There are some people who think Abbott Elementary is just a Hulu show, and that’s fine." Brunson didn't just come out of nowhere. She started her entertainment industry journey working as a P.A. on Donald Glover’s “Heartbeat” music video in 2011. She then cut her teeth working on digital projects, including working for Buzzfeed. In fact, Brunson credits working with digital's shorter timetables and smaller budgets with her ABC success. "Absolutely. If anything, I had to adjust to having bigger budgets," she says. "There have been times where my EPs have been like, 'Quinta, we can get props. We have a budget.' Some things are still so far-fetched to me. 'What? We can just go there and film it?'"
    • Please let Janelle James' Principal Coleman remain terrible!: James' Ava Coleman is "one of the most entertaining TV villains in recent memory," says Roxana Hadadi. "In a show that is primarily about selflessness, Ava’s ability to twist any situation into one that serves her self-interest is the hard edge that has made Abbott Elementary such a delight to watch each week. And after nine episodes of James’s scene-stealing performance, including this week’s Ava-spotlighting episode 'Step Class,' I deliver a plea: Let principal Coleman stay terrible!" Hadadi adds: "On Abbott Elementary, Ava is the constant villain of myriad B stories, and James’s performance, as exuberant as it is impish, teases out her standup strengths."
    • Janelle James's character isn't based on a principal from her past: "I mean, I don’t remember any of my principals," she says. "Maybe that’s funny in its own way? I don’t remember them, so I’m not basing her on any principals. I don’t think that this character is a principal. She is any bad boss in a power position in any industry you can think of. You could put her in advertising, a school, a restaurant, whatever. She’s just a bad boss. That’s what I’m drawing from, because we’ve all had those. It’s a mixture of a couple of bad bosses I’ve had plus, every sister-girl-auntie that we all, as Black people, have in our life. It’s a combination of all those people. And me!" James says she's had bad bosses with "a whole lot of toxic positivity. I’ve had a boss like that, where the things they’re saying and doing are awful, but they say it and do it with a smile on their face, which is almost more damaging to you. Because then you think you’re crazy!"
    • Tyler James Williams recalls the moment he knew Abbott Elementary would be a hit

    TOPICS: Abbott Elementary, ABC, Janelle James, Justin Halpern, Quinta Brunson, Tyler James Williams