ABC's Abbott Elementary has attracted the attention of both critics and audiences -- a rare thing in today's fractured entertainment world. But there's more to this comedy than just fun and games.
The Word 'Abbot(t)'
The opening sequence of each episode of ABC’s hit sitcom Abbott Elementary makes clear the public school is named after a “Willard R. Abbott.”
Season one never explains the school’s namesake.
I think that’s for the better, as I don’t believe it’s mere coincidence that the elementary school's name (Abbott) is very similar to the name for the superior of a Catholic men’s monastic community (Abbot).
The show depicts the teachers as very passionate for leading the little, enthusiastic students. When the occasionally unpredictable students leave the newbie teachers harried and flummoxed, they turn to the more senior teachers for advice and guidance.
The mentoring helps the school to become a nurturing, peaceful place for student learning, even if the struggling public school is strapped for cash.
Some monastic communities in their early centuries preserved Western classic and texts, while also fulfilling their more familiar function of training and mentoring future generations of monks.
(Come back to this space in September, when I will contend a similar theory on Amazon Prime Video’s Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power and the Hobbits.)
The Importance of Culture
The show takes place in a predominantly black part of Philadelphia. I thought this new show to be a nuanced upgrade to ABC’s wildly popular Black-ish universe.
One episode resolves with Principal Ava Coleman (Janelle James) remembering she should’ve bumped a precocious yet rambunctious student up a grade if not for being distracted by an Essence conference.
The show also pokes fun at Italian-American culture, as teacher Melissa Schemmenti (Lisa Ann Walter) usually calls in a “guy, who knows a guy” to donate new rugs for the kids or explain the “true” history of union and non-union members getting together to end a labor strike in Philly.
The cultural references come periodically and don’t override the narrative the way they sometimes do in Black-ish.
The plots for Abbot Elementary demand that every teacher, administrator and even janitor pitch in and use their noggins, irrespective of race.
Abbott Elementary comes out of the mockumentary workplace comedy tradition. NBC’s The Office and its U.K. predecessor stand as the most obvious parallels.
Re-watching a couple episodes, though, I found the NBC series to be a little mean-spirited, the humor filled with not-so subtle innuendo, and the characters and plots implausible.
My father’s annoyance with the show was that nearly all the male characters would be fired for harassment.
In Abbott Elementary, there’s far less, if any, of all three. The characters are likable across the board.
Even when colleagues laugh off the suggestions of a liberal teacher (Chris Perfetti) as impracticable for the real world, we get a sense they’re poking fun at his ideas and not him.
The PG rating, too, forces the show into greater creativity. Somehow, I found myself laughing at things not traditionally funny (puns) and things that were funny 100 years ago (slapstick).
The Idea of Vocation
This sitcom tugs at one’s heartstrings better than most dramas. It does so by framing the educational field in vocational terms: “a calling,” in the words of one character.
It’s one thing for a new teacher to realize her calling by season’s end, as does the main character, Janine (Quinta Brunson, who also created the show).
But, it’s quite another to solider on, as overtly Christian veteran teacher Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph) tries to do.
Insecurities creep up when former students graduate, move on to greater things and travel beyond the City of Brotherly Love.
A tumultuous modern world, it seems, still needs vital institutions and confident, intelligent teachers to guide them. Count Abbott Elementary and its merry band of instructors among them.
The recipient of seven Emmy nominations, and four Television Critics Awards (including Program of the Year, Outstanding New Program and Outstanding Achievement in Comedy), Abbott Elementary returns to ABC on Sept. 21.
Season one can be watched on ABC On Demand and on Hulu. Also, ABC will be running an Abbott Elementary marathon on Wednesday, Aug. 17, from 8-10 p.m. ET, beginning with the pilot.
Image: (L-R) Tyler James Williams as Gregory, Janelle James as Ava, Quinta Brunson as Janine, Sheryl Lee Ralph as Barbara, Chris Perfetti as Jacob, and Lisa Ann Walter as Melissa. (ABC/Pamela Littky)
Click here to visit USC film school graduate Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.