I first heard the name of “Abbott Elementary” creator Quinta Brunson back in 2017, when she was making videos for BuzzFeed. Like most of my peers at the time, BuzzFeed was my primary source of news: Instead of reading the headlines in The New York Times, I would spend hours scrolling through relationship quizzes, celebrity news, and animal content on Snapchat.
Brunson was a regular on the platform, and I remember, in particular, seeing her video “If I Came in Second Place at the Winter Olympics.” In the skit, Brunson has just medaled in some sort of downhill skiing event, and though the interviewer is determined to eke out some comment about her disappointment in not winning gold, Brunson is hilariously thrilled with her victory.
“Oh, I didn’t expect to land that jump,” Brunson says, goggles atop her head, looking into the camera. “I was taking a chance, so, it’s crazy that I’m alive right now.”
In what has since emerged as her signature style, Brunson is bubbly and assertive, stepping away from the camera to celebrate her win before jumping back into the frame to grab the mic and ask the interviewer what place he got in the Olympics today. He fumbles, and she laughs. It’s classic satire, and relevant every Olympic season.
Brunson has come a long way since her minute-long BuzzFeed parodies. Since then, she has performed in “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” and now she is back on the scene as the director and star of the new hit sitcom “Abbott Elementary.” Just like in her BuzzFeed videos, Brunson’s sense of comedic timing and lovable awkwardness is on full display in the series.
Like “The Office,” which is arguably the touchstone for workplace comedy, “Abbott Elementary” is shot in a mockumentary style and centers around an entire cast of characters. Unlike other sitcoms, though, the show follows various teachers and staff throughout a fictional inner-city Philadelphia school. The characters are not shy about talking back to the documentary crew and shooting looks into the camera after questionable interactions.
It is truly the characters that make “Abbott Elementary” so special. Brunson plays Janine Teagues, a talented but insecure young teacher, who seems to be a proxy for Brunson herself. Janelle James shines as Ava Coleman, the incredibly misguided principal of the school who, it is later revealed, has only fallen into the job because she caught the superintendent cheating on his wife. Lisa Ann Walter and Sheryl Lee Ralph play seasoned professionals Melissa Schemmenti and Barbara Howard respectively, who always have their classes under perfect control. Chris Perfetti is Jacob Hill, a young white teacher, excited to share his love of history with his students but deeply uninformed when it comes to Black culture. William Stanford Davis delivers the occasional zinger as a trash-obsessed janitor, Mr. Johnson. Then, there is Tyler James Williams as a substitute teacher, principal hopeful, and eventually, full-time teacher Gregory Eddie. As the show progresses, each character emerges as well-crafted and individual, poised to interact with their colleagues in increasingly strange and amusing scenarios.
The show spends the first few episodes developing its characters and their particular agendas. Janine, fondly known as Ms. Teagues, is determined to make the school day as smooth as possible for students, though she struggles against major budget restrictions as well as a failing relationship with her immature aspiring rapper boyfriend, Tariq (Zack Fox). She seeks validation and support from Melissa and Barbara, who eventually assist her endeavors but never miss an opportunity to make fun of her naivete.
Principal Coleman is mostly interested in getting her hair done and flirting with Gregory, who is deeply uncomfortable with such explicit (and hilarious) objectification. Jacob plays the role of the awkward, aloof white teacher who won’t shut up about the time he spent in Africa, but ultimately develops a heartwarming character arc and friendship with Barbara when they start a community garden together. It turns out that the plants are only growing, though, because Gregory sneaks out to tend to them.
“Jacob and Barbara have no idea what they’re doing,” Gregory confesses, deadpan, into the camera. “He was trying to plant a coconut in West Philadelphia in soil with sub-6.3.” He angrily shakes fertilizer onto the plants. “Bruh!”
The show begins to pick up steam a few episodes in, and never looks back. By the 1th episode, “Desking,” almost every scene is laugh-out-loud funny. In one memorable moment, Jacob brings in his boyfriend (Larry Owens) to help identify the shoe prints of the children who have been participating in the trend, which involves running across as many desks as possible. Jacob is thrilled to introduce Zach to his coworkers, who have a hard time believing that someone could possibly want to live full-time with their awkward colleague.
“So he knew you, and he was like…more?” Ava quips. Zach enters the room and Ava immediately reacts, “Black?” Zach quickly replies, “It’s actually pronounced ‘Zach’. You must be Ava.”
Amidst the funny scenes, “Abbott Elementary” develops heartfelt storylines between various teachers and staff members. Brimming with mommy issues, Janine eventually wins over Barbara, who takes her out to dinner after a tough conversation with a parent. Mr. Johnson gives Gregory advice on exploring different career options. Most compelling is the budding romance between Gregory and Janine, which sows the seeds for a quirky love story in future seasons.
Also undeniable is the show’s social commentary, which Brunson deftly weaves throughout the season. Abbott Elementary is a hugely underfunded public school, which puts pressure on teachers to supply their own materials and do their own fundraising alongside already demanding teaching obligations. But the show refuses to cast its subjects as worthy of pity—an undercurrent that Brunson emphasizes from the pilot as teachers poke fun at the fictional camera crew for wanting to come in and make a documentary about a sad, poor school. In reality, as viewers see throughout the season, Abbott Elementary is full of life, energy, and humor. The show, in which most of the teachers and all of the students are Black, is a story told by and for the people that it centers.
Season one concludes with a class field trip to the zoo before summer vacation, which brings the whole cast of characters together for some excellent comedy and sees relationship dynamics come to a head. Luckily for the show’s fans—and how could you not be among them?—ABC has already renewed “Abbott Elementary” for a second season. As I start a teaching job of my own in Madrid after graduation, I look forward to more laughs as Brunson continues to grow her characters.
Emma Smith can be reached at email@example.com.
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