Do you remember the weeping exhaustion you felt at home learning in confinement, and the senseless disbelief and crude gratitude you felt at those who do their daily business to instill knowledge in young minds; the deep respect you gained for their pedagogical skills as you dropped a glass of wine for every minute you spent trying to shove basic facts into the heads of your opposing youth? How deeply did you mean that when you lay on the floor every evening and cried to heaven that all teachers should be drenched in gold and worshiped as gods before you crawled into bed, preparing to start the whole bloody thing tomorrow?
Abbott Elementary (Disney +) will bring back a flood this time, but this time with laughter. Sometimes painful, bitter laughter, but laughter nonetheless. The new (to us – it appeared in the US for a year) mockumentary sitcom about an underfunded elementary school in western Philadelphia was created by comedian Quinta Brunson, whose mother taught at the same institution for 40 years. Brunson poses as a young, still-optimistic teacher Janine Teagues, always doing his besieged and often confused best. “Great communication skills, Bria!” she says, tirelessly, because yet another childish accusation tells her that she vomited everywhere. When she’s not teaching, she’s exploring the best way to raise funds for school supplies, trying to fix hallway lights, unlocking toilets, or embracing new educational methods that could help her destitute students. It’s a measure of Brunson’s ability as a writer and performer that despite her tangible innate kindness, Janine is never content or boring, but instead so urgently appealing that long before the end of the first episode you want only good things for her, forever.
Janine wants to be just like her colleague – a veteran teacher and beacon of effortless authority Barbara Howard, played with statuesque grandeur by Broadway star Sheryl Lee Ralph – only without the misanthropic bow. “I think the work is trying to make things better!” she protests when Barbara tries to extract her ambitions (which are mostly getting funds for a new carpet after one of her students pisses on it beyond the point of no return). “I think the job works with what you have so you don’t give up,” Barbara tells her. Or, like another teacher, the mob-affiliated Melissa Schemmenti (Lisa Ann Walter), says this: you have to be so careful that you refuse to let yourself be burned. “So who’s going to take care of the kids?” The tension between abstract ideals and a necessary compromise in a deeply flawed system is what moves the show and gives it its severity.
Filling the rest of the teachers ’lounge – where they go to eat their sad lunches if they have time – is fellow second-year teacher Jacob (Chris Perfetti, a painfully purposeful“ white ally ”in the mostly black school); assistant teacher Gregory (Tyler James Williams), who also serves as a slow-burning love interest for Janine; and the principal, Ava Coleman, who comes in from time to time for a point of self-enlargement while her exhausted staff stares in silent contempt. Ava is played by Janelle James, whose boundless charisma is put to good use in her role as the gloriously self-obsessed headmaster. Originally the position was given to someone else, but … “I’m going to the same church as the inspector,” she explains to the camera team happily, “and caught him cheating on his wife with the deaconess. And I needed a job!” As for Gregory, she is also a serial sex harasser, but for now he is too paralyzed by fear to know what to do about it.
Plots are small, often revolving around teachers ’attempts to resolve the latest and most pressing shortage of supplies to their school – though Melissa also brings in one of her teammates to help James with a lesson on the history of unionization. However, the rhythm never flickers, the character portrayals are note-perfect, the timing of the actors spotless. And the rapid fire rate, even without the fleeting glances of disbelief, embarrassment, or acknowledgment to a camera that are the hallmark of the mockumentary, leaves you breathless. It has Parks and Entertainmentthe sense of community of Modern Familythe precision gear of, Ted Lassothe charm of, but it’s his own, ridiculous thing. Despite – or, of course, because of – the truth of its underlying story of real-life deprivation.