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The 3 Secrets of Abbott Elementary - Why It’s Great

Even at its funniest, Quinta Brunson’s Abbott Elementary reminds us constantly that teachers’ work is never easy. There’s never enough money and there are no magic solutions. This focus on relatability ties into Abbott Elementary’s relationship with TV history. So what makes it so fresh, and popular?

Transcript

The most popular new comedy is also one of the simplest, and most earnest — Abbott Elementary has become an unlikely hit and critical darling, setting rating records for ABC. The series, created by Quinta Brunson, follows the faculty of a Philadelphia public school as they struggle to do their jobs with limited resources and in the face of administrative obstruction

So what makes it so fresh, and popular? The characters are endearing, flawed, and specificin a setting that’s above all, realistic. Even at its funniest, Abbott Elementary reminds us constantly that teachers’ work is never easy. There’s never enough money and there are no magic solutions. This focus on relatability ties into Abbott Elementary’s relationship with TV history: it draws on the charms and strengths of over two decades of mockumentary sitcoms. Like one of its key predecessors, The Office, Abbott Elementary at first seems like a pretty straightforward sitcom about a workplace everyone can recognize (since literally everyone has been to school). But the series also pushes back against sitcom history — by not offering escapist fantasies and not pandering to the wealthy audiences popular sitcoms are “supposed” to have.

Ava: “We about to be on TV.”

Barb: “Because they are covering underfunded, poorly managed public schools in America.”

Ava: “No press is bad press, Barb.”

- Abbott Elementary, 1x01

Here’s our take on what’s so great, and different, about Abbott Elementary.

Making Those Characters Shine

Abbott Elementary’s commitment to specificity is what makes its characters shine. Crucially, the show manages to treat its characters as characters, rather than broad caricatures or ways of teaching lessons. For example, as an optimistic, even naive teacher and the show’s ingénue, Janine is often a vehicle for positivity in the face of the school’s challenging conditions.

Janine: “I don’t care if you think I’m good at this or not anymore. I care about whether or not I can make a change.” - Abbott Elementary, 1x01

But even in Abbott Elementary’s most sincere moments, the show always has some jokes at her expense, reminding us that, on some level, the other characters don’t respect Janine – because she’s often overreaching, and even when she’s good at her job, she’s still fundamentally lame.

That contrast makes Janine an effective counterpoint to someone like Leslie Knope. Leslie’s enthusiasm eventually proved too infectious for even her most curmudgeonly colleagues to resist, and her dedication proved indomitable to the point where it’s hinted she becomes President of the United States. This is actually in keeping with past TV Wisdom – Leslie, like The Office’s Michael Scott, was strategically made more liked by her fellow characters after the first season in order to win over audiences. But so far, the rest of the Abbott Elementary staff remain hostile to too much earnestness from Janine, which is both funny and more realistic-feeling to how coworkers might react to a constantly overzealous colleague.

Janine: “Mondays are my absolute favorite day, because that’s when I get to come back here and see all of you guys again.” - Abbott Elementary, 1x09

A key to making characters engaging is allowing them to have flaws. Principal Ava is Abbott’s take on the classic TV “bumbling boss” like Michael Scott, Futurama’s Professor Farnsworth, or Veep’s Selina Meyer – more hindrance than help to her employees and makes it often feel like there’s no boss to organize the chaos. But in Ava, Abbott Elementary has managed to effectively update and subvert the trope into an original and funny creation. Where most comical bosses tend to be overbearing, Ava is a principal who is totally uninterested in even being at the school. In the very first episode, she tells the audience that she got her job by blackmailing the superintendent.

Principal Ava: “I go to the same church as the superintendent. Caught him cheating on his wife with the deaconess. I needed a job!” - Abbott Elementary, 1x01

Like Michael Scott, she’s chasing external validation. But where Michael cares too much about his coworkers and tries to force his employees to be his friends, Ava is fundamentally bored at school and wants to be liked by a larger public of random people on the internet. She views the teachers as mostly beneath her, as targets for her humor, or low-key sexual harassment.

She’s also more than just a recurring one-note joke or caricature; while she remains as goofy and image-obsessed as ever, over time her more positive qualities are subtly fleshed-out. Ava’s showmanship actually proves to be compelling and useful in multiple situations. When she inserts herself into Janine’s after-school step class, she gets genuinely involved and does a good job of getting the group enthusiastic about their stepping. Later in the episode, we learn that Ava has been hiding things from the other Abbott teachers; she is definitely unreliable because she has a lot of superficial interests, but she also takes care of her grandmother and uses her generally chaotic personality and lack of responsibility to avoid talking about her family issues with anyone at work.

This sense that Ava might actually take responsibility at school grows throughout the season. When Ava loses her blackmail hold on the superintendent, she is forced to live out a personal nightmare: actually trying to do her job. By the end of her confrontation with the school board, she reveals that she has come to appreciate and respect her colleagues.

Principal Ava: “The teachers that work there are some of the most dedicated, hardworking, and creative teachers in this entire city.” - Abbott Elementary, 1x12

Still, Abbott Elementary rejects the impulse to smooth Ava out and make her more pleasant overall. She might grow and be better at her job, but she still retains the chaotic, narcissistic streak that makes her so funny.

Also making it stand out in the TV landscape, Abbott Elementary stars a majority female and mostly black cast. By having such a varied cast of black characters, Abbott Elementary is able to make race just one of many components of all these people’s lives, rather than a singularly defining characteristic that puts pressure on the characters to be exemplary or perfect. It’s precisely this that allows a character like Ava to be so deliciously, comically flawed without it being some kind of statement about anything. As creator Quinta Brunson put it to The New York Times, “The white shows got to just be white, but a lot of the shows with people of color were about the color of the people and not about stories of the people.” Or in Ava’s words: “Oh, I get it now. I forget that black people can also be annoying.” (Abbott Elementary, 1x11).

Only two of the main cast members are white, and at first, they’re the two broadest characters on the show. Jacob initially plays like a send-up of liberal white guys trying to be “woke”; he’s literally introduced getting excited about being retweeted by Rachel Maddow, and he makes constant references to his “time in Africa.” Meanwhile, Melissa is embedded in Philly’s Italian community. But, flipping the normal dynamic of cliched “diversity,” Jacob and Melissa start out as stereotypes and are then both largely fleshed out by their relationships with the series’ black characters. Melissa’s revealed to be a talented life-long teacher who shows depth and vulnerability through her friendship with Barbara and her moments of advising Janine. And Jacob is charming for the way he’s always giving everything and trying to make the world better, often coming through with support for his friend Janine and developing a strong rapport with the old guard teachers, Melissa and Barbara.

The makeup of the cast has had a ripple effect on the way Abbott Elementary plays with the tropes of the workplace sitcom, which take on different meanings when done with black characters. Take the growing will-they-won’t-they relationship between Gregory and Janine.

Janine: “I hope you stay. For the kids.”

Gregory: “Yeah.”

- Abbott Elementary, 1x01

Brunson notes in an interview with The A.V. Club that the standard roadmap for this kind of plot often wouldn’t work with black characters: “I always say when Jim is hitting on an engaged Pam, I say that would never happen on a Black show. His ass would’ve been beaten asap.” By noting these different norms, Brunson and the rest of Abbott Elementary’s writers are able to tease out distinct versions of the familiar beats that feel true to their characters.

What Makes it Special

In some ways, Abbott Elementary feels much more normal than lots of other TV shows. So why does that make it seem so special? In an interview with The New York Times, Brunson noted that the show actively steered away from being topical — or at least the watered-down version of topical we often see on TV. As she put it, “People were tired of seeing their Twitter regurgitated back to them through their viewing. A lot of shows had started doing that. But people still want stories.” Abbott Elementary strenuously avoids being caught up in chasing trends – by instead being willing to be specific, earnest, and potentially uncool. When the kids at Abbott Elementary get into a viral fad, the show avoids using any real examples. Instead, it invents the phenomenon of “desking.” Desking manages to evoke past fads, like the milk crate challenge, without dating itself through a real reference point.

The show is skeptical of faddishness, superficial “wokeness,” and the impulse to suddenly change everything – Janine pushes back against the idea of replacing Peter Rabbit, a tried-and-true classic, with more relevant books. And an exciting new technology turns out to be a horrifically cynical corporate ploy. There are some episodes that are more progressive – like when the teachers decide to get rid of the “gifted program” and embrace a more “gifted for all” set-up. But most fundamentally, the show has reverence for experience – especially through its teachers Barbara and Melissa who aren’t particularly open to new ideas but solidly know how to teach kids due to years of practice.

Abbott Elementary’s respect for tradition extends to its approach to being a TV show in the first place. In an interview with The A.V. Club, Brunson noted that Abbott Elementary isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel. As she put it, “I think tropes are important to TV. I know there’s a crowd that goes, ‘Oh my god, we’ve seen this already.’ That’s TV. You’ve seen all this shit already. It’s all Shakespeare, it’s all Macbeth over and over again. You just change the wheels a little bit.”

While it may use those conventional characters or structures, though, in its details Abbott Elementary gets originality through feeling anchored to a place – whether due to the constant Philly references or Melissa’s love interest describing her as a “Philly 11.” Creatively, grounding stories in actual details like this is important to giving them a sense of reality. And this series was inspired in large part by Brunson’s mother, who worked as a public school teacher in West Philadelphia for 40 years.

“I really credit my mom’s experience for helping me to create this show.” - Quinta Brunson, The Kelly Clarkson Show

In fact, Janine’s role model, the character Barbara, an established teacher who commands respect from both her coworkers and her students, is in part based on Brunson’s mom. So rather than the show giving us what it might think we want, Abbott Elementary is communicating what its writers want to communicate — specifically, Brunson’s enthusiasm for and knowledge of Philadelphia public schools. The season finale briefly raises the question of whether Janine will move to the bigger, more recognizable city, New York – something which seemingly everyone on the show thinks would be a bad idea. Abbott Elementary’s predecessors tried in some ways to be generic. The entire point of The Office was that it could be about any office environment, including the ones the viewers work at; but Abbott Elementary is about the experience of getting a window into somewhere you might not know in-depth but will enjoy getting to understand – like visiting friends in a different city and hearing all the hilarious goings-on of their lives.

Doing More With Less

Another thing that stands out immediately about Abbott Elementary is that it’s accurate about the lack of money that plagues the school.

Janine: “The city doesn’t always give us the funding we need for our supplies.” - Abbott Elementary, 1x03

One of the major driving forces in the series is the lack of school funding, which makes minor conveniences a much bigger deal and raises the stakes for plots that might otherwise be minor throwaway jokes on another show. It’s a big deal when one of the kids pees on a rug or when the art teacher destroys the new copies of Peter Rabbit because things can’t easily be replaced.

Sitcoms are frequently unrealistic, even fantastical about money. Of course, there’s the iconic Friends apartments that most of the characters could never have afforded. There are characters with seemingly bottomless pockets like Barney on How I Met Your Mother – sure, he had a high-paying corporate job, but this made him capable of funding constant, elaborate over-the-top schemes and sometimes made the series truly surreal. Parks and Rec had Ron Swanson’s literal buried gold and Jean-Ralphio’s endless stream of money to fund things like Entertainment720. Having a supernaturally rich character around allows for the characters to be able to keep up with the writers’ imagination. But Abbott Elementary finds ways to still include the wackiness without a magic shortcut of unrealistic wealth. Its character most capable of hooking the others up is Melissa, who doesn’t actually have a ton of money but is “connected” through her family’s unstated mob ties.

The deeper reason that characters on network TV shows are often rich is because the show wants to mirror its ideal audience; no matter how many people are watching any given series on TV, the most important viewers will always be the richest ones, since they’re the ones who are most likely to buy the products that are advertised during commercial breaks. That’s why the “key demo” in TV ratings is adults aged 18-49, who are thought to be the biggest spenders and therefore most useful in commanding advertising rates. In fact, several of the most popular and beloved network sitcoms of all time only made it to a second season by appealing to the crucial demo. The Office only survived past its first season because it was popular with rich viewers; Seinfeld was renewed after its shortened first season because it was popular with young men, a demographic coveted by advertisers.

But in Abbott Elementary, these demographics aren’t reflected, and there are clear reasons why the show’s cast of characters are so strapped. These reasons contain an implicit commentary – there’s no money for public school funding because our system doesn’t value the work teachers do educating our kids. We see how hard the teachers work to support and nurture the children they work with, contrasted with how little the school district or people in power seem to care. And that makes the teachers of Abbott classic underdogs who we want to root for.

Barbara: “My kids don’t have half the supplies they need most of the time, but they don’t need to know that. My students do not need to feel less than because they do not have stuff.” - Abbott Elementary, 1x03

Like Parks and Rec and The Office, Abbott Elementary follows people working in often frustrating jobs, outside of the cultural and financial centers of New York and Los Angeles. But instead of digressing into fantastical, escapist scenarios, Abbott stays focused on the school’s constant threat of losing funding. Parks and Rec eventually made it seem like a dedicated official like Leslie can overcome all of those petty details, like funding, and make real, lasting change, as long as they care enough. Abbott Elementary is more realistic; it presents skilled and admirable people trying their best in a world that doesn’t support them or appreciate their work. This gives the cast a common enemy, and something to struggle against — building a consistent foundation for the series.

Today we’re moving into an era where the onscreen workplace comedy is giving way to the workplace dystopian nightmare. These days, it would be harder to light-heartedly accept a new sitcom with The Office’s premise because so many people are increasingly disillusioned with the meaninglessness of their jobs and don’t feel it’s a laughing matter. Abbott Elementary manages to bring the workplace sitcom back into the realms of laughs and good vibes because it reminds us there are careers out there that do make all the difference – even if finding that purpose means giving up a lot of the money and prestige we typically equate with success in the workplace.

Conclusion

Most sitcoms are about family, whether it’s a biological family, a chosen family of friends, or a workplace family. Abbott Elementary has a kind of work-family, but it balances the growing connections between its teachers with maintaining some of their boundaries. It ranges from a more sincere, sentimental story about the power of teaching to a dark comedy about the bureaucracy of the modern American educational system. The flexibility is the point.

Abbott Elementary is popular because it differentiates itself from its predecessors and TV history while paying homage to that same history. People don’t always need to see themselves onscreen exactly; they need to see people they can root for. And there’s also a ton here that’s recognizable: whether or not viewers are dealing with the same level of financial problems, they know someone who has — and they’ve all gone to school. Even a wealthy celebrity like Kelly Clarkson noted that she intimately relates to the show because, while teaching wasn’t her life, it was a part of her family’s.

“So the premise of them kind of, like, of the teachers being against the administration and having to go through the guidelines? That’s real. That was my mom every night.” - Clarkson, The Kelly Clarkson Show

It’s a reminder that teaching shapes all of us into who we become – and there’s no more universal, real, or important setting to think about in our world today.

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