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It’s a canonical checklist: the episodes are 22 minutes long, with commercial breaks fading to black. The setting is a workplace or family space inhabited by a cross section of friends, relatives or eccentrics. The commitment is based on understanding and idiosyncratic competition. It is, of course, the classic American sitcom, the staple of network programming for a decade, that has given us long-running staples like friends† Modern familyand The Big Bang Theory† The same goes for the best new sitcom of 2022: Abbott Elementary†
The rumors of the sitcom’s demise have been greatly exaggerated – you just need to know where to look for them. Abbott Elementary is not shown on a commercial network at 9 p.m. as a chaser of an exaggerated reality show, it is streamed on Disney+. The show, which debuted in January on the Disney-owned ABC network and has become a critical and commercial success, is both a great tribute to the delights of a well-curated sitcom and a welcome update on the format’s legacy. It looks back, but it makes a leap forward.
Created by its star, 32-year-old writer and actor Quinta Brunson, Abbott Elementary deliberately works in the mockumentary tradition of The office and Parks and Recreation† The everyday characters don’t look to the camera to capture their inopportune moments and explain themselves awkwardly in sideline interviews. But here they’re surrounded by kids – it’s set in an elementary school in West Philadelphia, where the teachers pull the plug five days a week and the teachers’ lounge is in turn a lunch spot and an inquisitor’s room.
The demographics are unbelievable. The student body is almost completely black, as are the majority of the teachers. Brunson’s Janine is a chatty, optimistic sparkler, determined to make a difference even when everyone else says she’s going to make things worse, attracting both sideways attention and ultimately support from veterans like Ms. Howard (Sheryl Lee Ralph ) – which is so impressive even colleagues and television critics formally address her. Janine’s fellow newcomer, Jacob Hill (Chris Perfetti), is referred to as “white boy” at the local luncheon joints. He hopes it is affectionate.
Although it does not refer to the pandemic, Abbott Elementary recognizes daily hardship. The school’s budget is bleak and its principal, Ava Coleman (Janelle James, an absolute scene-stealer), is more interested in social media success than supporting her staff. An early episode gets multiple jokes about the real-life practice of teachers using crowdfunding to buy teaching materials. It’s not an individual keeping the school on the brink of collapse with a barely enough funding model, which is exactly how the system is designed to work.
The writing draws both punchlines and pathos out of this battle. “We care so much that we refuse to burn out,” another old hand, Melissa Schemmenti (Lisa Ann Walter), tells Janine. Not every teacher makes it. One washout kicks a kid, which is a no-no — instead “threatening the parents,” explains Melissa. A new replacement, Gregory Eddie (Tyler James Williams), isn’t even sure he likes teaching. Watching the crazy temperature in the classroom improve and scratching his passion for the subject (as is embarrassment at Ava’s blunt flirtation) is one of the joys of the first season.
“Distractions are an important part of teaching,” advises Ms. Howard Gregory, and the show makes clear the dedication of teachers without portraying them as sacred figures or losing their funniest lines. The faculty gets frustrated, has weird opinions, and casually performs difficult tasks to further a silly bit of an episode’s plot. It’s an indication of the show’s authenticity that the kids who fill the classrooms are not actors, devoid of professional charm.
The pace is fast, with deadpan movements and inappropriate interjections occurring at a pace that can be described as Brooklyn Nine-Nine speed. Brunson got her start creating content for Buzzfeed Video, and her trajectory is back toward the traditional television mainstream. She’s an all-rounder, but doesn’t want a signature streaming show known for its arthouse to thrive. Brunson hired Randall Einhorn, who helmed numerous episodes of The office, as her set-up director because she was so familiar with his work. He gives Willard R. Abbott Elementary a distinct note, just like he did with Dunder-Mifflin.