There are some television shows that, within only a few minutes of watching, you just know will be hits. That magic is hard to explain — there isn’t exactly a formula for a perfect series — but when you see it, you’ll recognize it. New ABC sitcom Abbott Elementary, created by and starring Quinta Brunson, is one of those shows. And we’re only three episodes in.
Abbott Elementary follows the daily chaos of a south Philadelphia elementary school and its overworked but spirited staff. Brunson stars as Janine Teagues, a buoyant second-year teacher trying her best to make important changes at her workplace. Her co-workers, a mix of TFA-esque new blood and education veterans, are right beside her in the constant push for improving the school — some more reluctantly than others. While Janine’s fellow rookie teacher Jacob (Chris Perfetti) and new substitute Gregory (James Tyler Williams) happily go along with her lofty plans, seasoned staff Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph) and Melissa (Lisa Ann Walter) aren’t so sure; they’ve been in the game too long to expect things to happen overnight. Making things increasingly difficult for the staff at Abbott Elementary is the casual incompetence of their boss, Ava (Janelle James), a woman who is as unqualified to be principal as she is uninterested in actually serving her students and team.
Abbott Elementary is already drawing praise for its first few episodes, with many viewers likening it to the beloved series The Office (the American version, of course). The comparisons between the shows make sense; both hilarious plots are filmed mockumentary-style with a single camera setup and explore a chaotic workplace made up of unique personalities. But perhaps the most compelling part of the show is the fact that its humor is solidly based on a truth so harsh that you can’t help but laugh so you don’t cry: the American education system is a nightmare.
We don’t have to look further than the nightly news to see how awful American education can be, especially in lower-income communities. Despite being smack dab in a global pandemic going on its third year, kids are still being shuffled into the COVID hotspots that are their classrooms. Student lunch debt, which shouldn’t even be a thing to begin with, is $262 million a year across the country. There were 168 national exposures to gunfire on school campuses in just 2021, resulting in 36 deaths. These are realities that many teachers in this country have seen firsthand, terrors that students are living through every single day.
On the show, Janine and her fellow teachers are genuinely passionate about ensuring the well-being of their students, but even for the most optimistic new recruits, improving the school proves to be more challenging than they imagined. And it’s not just the ineptitude of their boss holding them back; it’s the establishment itself. Rather than providing basic resources like air conditioning, school supplies, and proper lunches for the students, the city funnels its funding into fancy new upgrades for the local football stadium, forcing the staff to take money out of their own, barely sufficient pockets. Communication to the higher-ups in their district is non-existent, leading to a feedback loop that ensures that nothing actually ever gets done by the people in charge.
Abbott Elementary does an excellent job in capturing the bleakness of the current climate, but it also reminds us that even in these apocalyptic circumstances, the education system is only being held together by the people on the ground. Through the ragtag staff of Abbott Elementary, the ABC show highlights the necessity and impact of good teachers — something that Brunson herself can attest to. (The Philly native herself is the product of a hardworking teacher; a middle school teacher named Ms. Abbott actually inspired Brunson’s entire plot.) Brunson hopes that Abbott Elementary will play some part in making things right for teachers and students in lower-income communities alike, raising awareness of the needs on these campuses and ensuring that the staff working to fill them are celebrated.
“My goal with the show is to make people laugh, but I do hope that it gets people thinking,” Brunson told The Los Angeles Times. “And [that] it puts a little bit of pressure on the people who need to be pressured a little.”
Teachers like the real-life Ms. Abbott and the fictional Janine are both the structure and the soul of American education, going out of their way in order to provide their best for their students. We need them. And we owe them much more than what they have.