Abbott Elementary review – the gags come so thick and fast they take your breath away | Television & radio


Do you remember the weeping exhaustion you felt home-schooling in lockdown, and the fathomless disbelief and raw gratitude you felt towards those who make it their daily business to instil knowledge in young minds; the profound reverence you gained for their pedagogic skills, as you downed a glass of wine for every minute you spent trying to ding basic facts into the heads of your recalcitrant young? How deeply you meant it when you lay on the floor every evening and cried to the heavens that all teachers should be showered with gold and worshipped as gods, before you crawled into bed preparing to begin the whole bloody thing again tomorrow?

Abbott Elementary (Disney+) will bring that time flooding back, but this time with laughs. Sometimes painful, bitter laughs, but laughs nonetheless. The new (to us – it has been out in the US for a year) mockumentary sitcom about an underfunded primary school in west Philadelphia was created by comedian Quinta Brunson, whose mother taught in the same institution for 40 years. Brunson plays young, still-optimistic teacher Janine Teagues, always doing her beleaguered and frequently bewildered best. “Great communication skills, Bria!” she says, indefatigably, as yet another infant charge tells her she has thrown up everywhere. When she’s not teaching, she is researching the best way to raise funds for school supplies, trying to fix hallway lights, unblocking toilets or embracing new educational methods that might help her deprived students. It’s a measure of Brunson’s skill as a writer and performer that despite her palpable innate goodness, Janine is never smug or boring, but instead so desperately appealing that long before the end of the first episode you want only good things for her, for ever.

Strong words in the staff room … Lisa Ann Walter and Sheryl Lee Ralph in Abbott Elementary.
Strong words in the staff room … Lisa Ann Walter and Sheryl Lee Ralph in Abbott Elementary. Photograph: Scott Everett White/ABC/Getty Images

Janine wants to be just like her colleague – veteran teacher and beacon of effortless authority Barbara Howard, played with statuesque magnificence by Broadway star Sheryl Lee Ralph – only without the misanthropic bent. “I think the job is trying to make things better!” she protests, when Barbara tries to corral her ambitions (which are mostly to get funds for a new rug, after one of her students peed on it past the point of no return). “I think the job is working with what you’ve got so you don’t get let down,” Barbara tells her. Or, as another teacher, the mob-affiliated Melissa Schemmenti (Lisa Ann Walter), puts it: you have to care so much that you refuse to let yourself burn out. “Who’s gonna look after the kids then?” The tension between abstract ideals and necessary compromise in a deeply flawed system is what drives the show and gives it its astringency.

Filling up the rest of the teachers’ lounge – where they go to eat their dismal lunches if they have time – is fellow second-year teacher Jacob (Chris Perfetti, a painfully determined “white ally” in the largely black school); substitute teacher Gregory (Tyler James Williams), who also acts as a slow-burn love interest for Janine; and the principal, Ava Coleman, who pops in now and then for a spot of self-aggrandisement while her exhausted staff look on in silent contempt. Ava is played by Janelle James, whose limitless charisma is put to fine use in her role as the gloriously self-obsessed head teacher. Originally the position was given to someone else, but … “I go to the same church as the superintendent,” she explains to the camera crew delightedly, “and caught him cheating on his wife with the deaconess. And I needed a job!” As far as Gregory is concerned, she is also a serial sexual harasser, but at the moment he is too paralysed by fear to know what to do about that.

Plots are small, often revolving around teachers’ attempts to resolve the latest and most pressing lack of supplies to their school – though Melissa also brings in one of her teamster buddies to help Jacob out with a lesson on the history of unionisation. However, the pace never flags, the character portrayals are note-perfect, the actors’ timing immaculate. And the rapid-fire gag rate, even without the fleeting looks of disbelief, embarrassment or acknowledgment to camera that are the hallmark of the mockumentary, leaves you breathless. It has Parks and Recreation’s sense of community, Modern Family’s precision-tooling, Ted Lasso’s charm, but it is its own, hilarious thing. Despite – or, of course, because of – the truth its underlying tale of real-life deprivation tells.

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