If you follow local news or morning shows or social media, you’ve seen the inspirational videos. A dedicated teacher gets a surprise donation of back-to-school items, or PPE, or shoes. An educator asks for school supplies in lieu of flowers at her funeral. A school staffer pays out of pocket to make sure students have warm clothing or even food. It’s heartwarmingisn’t it?
Maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s depressing. The unspoken flip side of these tear-jerking stories, after all, is that we have outsourced our society’s essential needs to the whims of viral philanthropy. These videos substitute for actual investment by giving boons to a few lucky winners. We love to feel good about teachers. But actually doing good by them is rare enough to require memorialization in video. After a couple minutes of which, we scroll on.
ABC’s “Abbott Elementary,” the best new network sitcom of the season, is not a year’s supply of pencils. But it is something else significant: Sustained attention for a profession that, however much lip service we pay it, usually gets lost among TV’s stable of doctors, lawyers and police.
There is an intermittent history of shows about teaching: “Welcome Back, Kotter,” “Boston Public,” Season 4 of “The Wire.” But TV tends to see students as the protagonists of school — the Sweathogs stole the show from Gabe Kotter — and even in series that take teaching more seriously, like “Friday Night Lights,” educators are at best equal players.
“Abbott Elementary,” whose first season ends on April 12, is a workplace comedy, which means that it looks at teaching as a job done by complicated, messy humans. This also means that its mission and good intentions would mean nothing if it weren’t funny. And it is hilarious. (As a critic, I appreciate a bittersweet seven-episode niche dramedy more than most, but sometimes you just want a good sitcom.)
Shot in mockumentary style — the camera crew, we’re told, is making a film about underfunded public schools — “Abbott Elementary” would have fit in on any NBC must-see-TV lineup of the ’00s, if the network had been making comedies with mostly Black casts at the time.
The creator, Quinta Brunson (“A Black Lady Sketch Show”), plays Janine Teagues, a second-year, second-grade teacher at a scrappy public school in Philadelphia, where restroom users learn to avoid “Reversey Toilet” (a malfunctioning fixture in permanent geyser mode) and the history textbooks have the three presidents since George W. Bush taped in.
A nerdy, conscientious people pleaser, Janine craves the approval of veterans like the formidable kindergarten teacher Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph). But she struggles to manage her own students — partly because, with her short stature and hummingbird nerves, she seems like half a kid herself.
Janine has Michael Scott’s need to be liked without his excruciating cluelessness, Leslie Knope’s idealism without her steamroller confidence. On another sitcom, she might be a supporting character; there’s even a hint of a Pam-and-Jim long game between her and Gregory (a perfectly dry Tyler James Williams), a substitute teacher embittered by losing the principal gig to Ava (a scam-tastic, anything-but-dry Janelle James ).
Making Janine the point-of-view character feels like a statement. She’s not larger than life. If anything, she’s a couple of sizes smaller. And this, “Abbott Elementary” suggests, is exactly the sort of person who makes the world work: a regular person who swallows her doubts and does the job that needs to be done.
The sharp gags and character sketches alone make “Abbott” a delight. The show has a well-balanced ensemble, rounded out by Jacob (Chris Perfetti), the earnest young white guy who quotes Robin DiAngelo, and Melissa (Lisa Ann Walter), a street-smart South Philly native who’s “got a guy for everything .”
But what becomes clear over the first season is how thoroughly Brunson and her creative team have done the reading when it comes to American education, about both its eternal challenges and its of-the-moment dynamics.
The third episode, “Wishlist,” is built around those viral please-fund-my-classroom videos and the “American Idol”-ization of education that they promote. (“I cannot listen to one more squeaky voice begging for pencils,” Melissa grouses.) Janine makes a promo for her online supply list with the help of Ava, who may not know much about pedagogy but does have a green screen in the office for shooting TikTok videos.
They’re so successful that they decide to secretly do the same for the tech-phobic Barbara (“I’m going to make it rain glue sticks in that room,” Ava says). The mawkish video Ava produces gets a flood of donations, but Barbara is appalled.
“Is it nice to have stuff? Sure,” she tells Janine. “But my students do not need to feel less-than because they do not have stuff.”
Our culture likes to tell itself educational success stories about the few. But public schools truly work only if they work for the many. In a later episode, Abbott launches a gifted program whose students get to watch baby chickens hatch. When Janine tries to expand the offering to the rest of her class, the eggs she procures through one of Melissa’s “connections” hatch baby snakes, a gaspingly funny scene whose point is sharp as a serpent’s tooth.
“When you give some kids chickens, other kids are going to get snakes,” Gregory says. “If you get snakes long enough, that’s what you think you deserve.”
Some of the show’s strongest statements are delivered not in speeches but simply through its comfort with being what it is. “Abbott” is thoroughly but casually steeped in Black culture, as comes through in scenarios like when Janine and Ava organize a school step show.
And while the pandemic doesn’t come up, “Abbott Elementary” feels thoroughly of the moment by emphasizing all the social services — counseling, food, crisis intervention — for which communities rely on in-person schooling. Janine spends an episode trying to schedule a meeting with a student’s mother, who she assumes is merely uninvolved. Turns out, the mother is a nurse who has been stuck at work.
You don’t need to show an N95 mask to make the connection. “Abbott Elementary,” at heart, is about the overworked serving the overburdened. And all of them lately have been asked to give more than they have.
A drama could tell the same sorts of stories, but there’s something about a workplace comedy, with its focus on eccentricities and petty annoyances, that makes it especially effective. The teachers of “Abbott Elementary” are as imperfect as you are, and this is important. Part of the “heartwarming” narrative that we like to tell ourselves about education is that teachers are saints. It’s convenient: You don’t owe anything to a saint.
In the next-to-last episode of the season, on the other hand, “Abbott” gives one of its most potent lines to its most flawed character. Ava, who has always relied on a combo of delegation and blackmail to stay in her job, finds herself having to give a solo presentation to win the school a funding grant. It does not go well.
But at the last minute, she unexpectedly finds her voice. “Don’t give us the money because we need it,” she says. “Give it to us because everyone at Abbott deserves it.” That distinction, between need and deserveis the difference between charity and obligation, between pity and respect.
And sometimes laughter is the best kind of respect you can pay. “Abbott Elementary,” thank God, is more gut-busting than it is heartwarming. It’s the kind of comedy that network TV needs, and that education deserves.