The Old-Fashioned Appeal of ‘Abbott Elementary’

ABC sitcom makes fun of teachers while also dignifying and celebrating them

It’s not hard to understand why ‘Abbott Elementary’, which airs new episodes on ABC starting March 22, is such a hit. The show has likable characters and an unpretentious vibe, and, most of all, it’s seamlessly funny. But in an era where public education has become the major front in an ongoing American culture war, Abbott Elementary also taps into a nostalgia for simpler school days .

Show creator Quinta Brunson plays Janine Teagues, a second-year second-grade teacher at an underfunded West Philadelphia grade school. She surrounds herself with a motley “work family”, and they’re all trying to make do with less, even Ava, the glamour-gal school principal, who’s way more concerned with her social-media feed than with student outcomes. In one of the show’s funnier details, Eva got her job by sexually blackmailing a school board member. And yet Abbott Elementary remains a pretty wholesome family show.

This is ABC’s highest-rated comedy since Modern Family went off the air, and it’s easy to see why. Abbott Elementary has near-universal appeal. Unlike the most recent school sitcom, Community, which was really a Dan Harmon art project that held low-cost education in disdain, Abbott Elementary sees education as a universal value that everyone deserves. Its cast is largely Black and its student body is almost entirely Black. And its setting in West Philadelphia places it in possibly the most Capital D Democratic neighborhood in the United States. Its values are unapologetically, classically liberal. And yet it’s not particularly woke.

The show holds great affection for its most woke character, a gay second-year middle-grade social studies teacher named Jacob, but only to the extent that it holds affection for all its characters. Jacob is sweet and smart and hardworking, but the rest of the cast rolls their eyes whenever he brings up climate change, ‘White Fragility’, or something else he heard about on Morning Edition on the way to work. The rest of the school has more practical, everyday concerns.

In one terrific episode, Jacob is trying to teach his kids about the power of unions. So Melissa, the hard-bitten South Philly teacher played by Lisa Ann Walter, arranges to have a union pal of hers come into Jacob’s class as a guest lecturer. He agrees to do it as part of his parole agreement, because he went to jail for busting heads during a violent wildcat strike. That’s not the idealistic working-man lesson Jacob wanted to teach, but the kids think unions are cooler because of it.

The teachers in Abbott Elementary aren’t talking to their kids about Critical Race Theory or about transgender rights. It’s enough to try to get them to learn how to read or write or do math. In another key episode, Janine arranges for a college friend of hers from Penn to come into school and do an art project for free. It’s part of an annual lesson, which Melissa designed 20 years ago, where the students read Peter Rabbit and then make bunny faces on paper plates. In fact, Melissa has procured several boxes of a new edition of the Peter Rabbit story through her shady South Philly connections.

The art friend finds Peter Rabbit very declassé. She does the paper-plate project, but also has the kids make a paper-maché forest out of torn-up pages of the Peter Rabbit books. Janine tells her to stuff it, and then brings in some snobby art critics to look at the forest so she can raise money to replace the books.

“The kids just like reading Peter Rabbit,” Melissa says.

That’s exactly right, and Abbott Elementary, in a brilliant promotional move, has put its money where its heart is by partnering with Scholastic to hold free book fairs at underserved schools around the country. In an era where teachers have become political footballs that ideologues on the left and the right feel free to kick around to promote agendas of dubious value, the show is reasserting the prime value of education: learning to read a book you enjoy on a quiet mat in a safe space, free of judgment. And it’s trying to reassert the value of what Janine Teagues calls “the greatest job in the world”: Teaching.

It’s been a hellish couple of years for American public education, with screaming debates over whether or not teachers can say the word “gay”, forced masking on eight-year-olds, and kindergarteners eating socially distanced lunches outdoors, on the pavement, in freezing winter weather. Given the current educational environment, Abbott Elementary may be a kind of fantasy. But unlike most TV fantasies, this one feels still within reach if people can just put aside their agendas for five minutes. Abbott Elementary and Quinta Brunson here to say: School can be good again, teachers care, and they are funny and weird.

 

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 11 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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