As hard as it is for any TV show to start on a strong note, it’s doubly hard for comedies, which depend so much on cast and writers’ room chemistry to truly click into gear. You wouldn’t know it, though, from watching the first few episodes of “Abbot Elementary,” ABC’s new sitcom that manages to feel fully formed from the get go. From comedian Quinta Brunson, “Abbott Elementary” makes quick work of introducing its setting (an underfunded Philly school), characters (the frustrated teachers trying to make it work), and the intangible sense of history and possibility that keep any show compelling beyond its logline.
Brunson stars as Janine, an eternally optimistic second grade teacher who refuses to accept the uninspiring status quo without trying to improve it. This makes her something of a nuisance to veteran teachers like Barbara and Melissa — played by the formidable duo of Sheryl Lee Ralph and Lisa Ann Walter — who have been at this too long to hope for much better than what they’ve got. Rounding out the core cast are Chris Perfetti as the school’s resident tryhard Jacob, William Stanford Davis as the checked out janitor, Janelle James as the new self-involved principal, and the very charming Tyler James Williams as new substitute teacher Gregory. Each character is immediately distinct unto themselves; together, the cast makes it easy to believe these characters have worked alongside each other for far longer than we’ve known them.
Centering a show on teachers isn’t exactly a new concept, even as those shows have rarely lived up to their narrative potential. Where “Abbott Elementary” succeeds, then, is by making itself a true workplace comedy in the vein of “The Office” or “Superstore.” (It also follows in “The Office” footsteps of formatting itself as a mockumentary, which doesn’t feel entirely necessary, but nonetheless works in the show’s drier moments.) There are hints of what the teachers’ lives are like outside the school, but only enough to inform what they’re like inside it — and for now, that’s plenty.
No doubt developed long before the pandemic disrupted schooling in a huge, irrevocable way, “Abbott Elementary” elects not to work the coronavirus into its reality, which is probably just as well. The extraordinary hardships teachers have gone through since the pandemic hit are enough to fuel an entirely different show — and as “Abbott Elementary” makes plain, the problems that have become unavoidable in recent years didn’t spring up out of nowhere. Abbott Elementary barely has enough money to keep basic supplies in stock, let alone hire extra help. And as Barbara puts it to Janine in a particularly tough moment, when it comes down to it, teachers have acted as “admin, social workers, therapists, second parents” for decades. That the series can find even light comedy in this sobering truth is a credit to its writers, and represents a solid start for this promising series.
A special preview of “Abbott Elementary” will air Tuesday, Dec. 7 at 9:30 p.m. on ABC before its Jan. 4 midseason premiere.