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Abbott Elementary's Stellar 3rd Season May Have Solved the Show's 'Leslie Knope Problem'

Conflict is essential for comedy — but sometimes, so is good vibes.
  • Quinta Brunson in Abbott Elementary (Photo: Gilles Mingasson/Disney)
    Quinta Brunson in Abbott Elementary (Photo: Gilles Mingasson/Disney)

    It may be hard to fathom now, but when Parks and Recreation debuted in the spring of 2009, it didn’t look like the kind of show that would run for seven seasons and be remembered as one of the best sitcoms of the 2010s. No, back in Season 1, Parks and Recreation had a Leslie Knope problem. The series’s main character — an idealistic Indiana bureaucrat played by Amy Poehler — was initially framed as a peppy naif, lacking in self-awareness and unable to see how little respect her coworkers had for her. She was less of a likable underdog and more of a pathetic figure, isolated and ignored. In other words: She wasn’t much fun to hang out with for a half-hour each week.

    Abbott Elementary has a lot in common with Parks and Recreation. The Emmy-winning hit is shot in a similar mockumentary style; and it’s also about well-meaning civil servants, dealing with the budget constraints and demanding constituents at a Philadelphia public school. The show’s creator Quinta Brunson plays Abbott’s version of Leslie Knope: Janine Teagues, a second-grade teacher who’s only been on the job for a few years and thus remains optimistic that she can bring lasting improvements to a crumbling institution.

    Janine has never been as embarrassingly clueless as Leslie was in Season 1 of Parks and Rec. She’s always been a sympathetic character: smart, sweet, and relatably anxious about what other people think of her. Yet throughout Abbott’s first two seasons, the show has often had Janine’s colleagues make cutting comments about her — sometimes privately and sometimes to her face, but always on-camera. It’s been the one bum note in an otherwise charming and poignant sitcom.

    There has been a purpose to the meanness, to be fair. Two of the school’s older teachers — Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph) and Melissa (Lisa Ann Walter) — roll their eyes at Janine because they’ve been burned too many times by false promises from administrators, and they worry that Janine’s efforts to overhaul Abbott distract from the honorable, vital work of just educating students, day by day. And two of Janine’s peers — Gregory (Tyler James Williams) and Jacob (Chris Perfetti) — sometimes find her all-in approach to their job exhausting.

    All four of them genuinely care about her, unlike her boss, Principal Ava Coleman (Janelle James), who treats Janine like all the nerdy classmates she and the popular crowd used to harass in school. But in a way it’s because Janine is friends with Barbara, Melissa, Gregory and Jacob that their periodic snark at her expense — in Season 2 especially — has felt dissonant.

    Brunson throughout her career has shown herself to be very savvy about how comedy works and about what makes for good television, so it’s possible she and her writing staff realized they’d mis-calibrated the Janine-bashing. The first two Abbott Elementary seasons were still both very good. But thus far Season 3 has been the show’s best; and the reason for this is one small tweak to the plot. Janine — for now — isn’t teaching at Abbott. She’s been recruited into a special temporary position at the school district, working with the bureaucracy rather than pushing desperately and noisily against it.

    That simple switch has had a few positive effects. First off, it’s opened up a whole new area of stories that Brunson and company can tell, from inside city hall rather than outside; and it’s altered how Janine fits into those stories, as someone who has some actual political power now. But also, taking Janine away from the daily grind of teaching at Abbott has meant that the show’s supporting characters interact with each other more often — and that they don’t spend all their scenes together picking on Janine.

    Even better: Janine’s new colleagues at the district actually admire her. The change is similar to what happened to Parks and Recreation toward the end of Season 1 and more fully in Season 2, where the approach to Leslie Knope’s character shifted from “here’s this deluded kook no one likes” to “here’s this incredibly capable go-getter at the center of a supportive network of lovable friends and coworkers.” Parks and Rec fixed its Leslie Knope problem by fixing Leslie Knope.

    Again, Abbott at its cruelest was never as rough on Janine as Parks and Recreation was to Leslie in its first season. But that show’s creative team (led primarily by Michael Schur) did realize that from a narrative and thematic perspective their most fruitful push-and-pull was between Leslie and a complacent American socio-political system, not between Leslie and the people she worked with every day.

    The “District Janine” storyline likely won’t last much longer. Her job there isn’t permanent; and many of this season’s episodes have emphasized how much she misses teaching. But there are signs that Season 3’s revised take on Janine might stick. Back-to-back episodes recently offered typical Janine-versus-the-cynics plots that didn’t play out quite like they might’ve in Season 2.

    In “Library,” a Janine initiative to get dedicated librarians into the district’s elementary schools hits a snag when Barbara’s casual, sloppy approach to using the library puts her at odds with the highly organized new Abbott librarian. With her pet project on the line, Janine has to stand up to her mentor and tell Barbara her ego is putting a very useful program at risk, at the expense of her students and fellow teachers.

    And in “Willard R. Abbott,” Janine’s efforts to get the school recognized as a Philadelphia landmark — complete with a fancy plaque — go awry when she finds out the school’s namesake was a segregationist. While Barbara and Melissa had urged Janine not to get too excited, arguing that this kind of recognition is “just local politics” and does nothing to make the kids’ schooling any better, they spare her their “I told you so”s when the plan flops. “I’m not here to gloat,” Barbara says, to which Melissa adds, “We already did that a few minutes ago, behind your back.”

    More importantly: They did it off-camera. It’s baked into the premise of Abbott Elementary that Janine’s sunniness will be met occasionally with “Barbara clouds and Melissa meatballs.” And the show would lose a lot of its comic snap if Ava weren’t regularly insulting Janine. But it’s possible to take those jokes too far. As the Parks and Recreation team learned, it’s hard to root for a sitcom’s main character if all the smart, funny people around her are constantly running her down. Conflict is essential for comedy — but sometimes, so is good vibes.

    Noel Murray is a freelance pop culture critic and reporter living in central Arkansas.

    TOPICS: Abbott Elementary, ABC, NBC, Parks and Recreation, Amy Poehler, Quinta Brunson