The Day – ‘Abbott Elementary’: Finally a worthy successor to ‘The Office’


TV-obsessed companions: We finally have a worthy successor to “The Office” in ABC’s “Abbott Elementary.” Created by Quinta Brunson, who also plays alongside a formidable ensemble that includes the great Sheryl Lee Ralph, the show centers on an eclectic group of teachers working in an underfunded elementary school. Loosely inspired by the 40-year career of Brunson’s mother, who worked in the Philadelphia public school system, it airs at 9 p.m. Tuesdays (and is available on Hulu if you need to catch up).

Brunson began her comedy training in Chicago at Second City and most recently served as a writer and performer on HBO’s “A Black Lady Sketch Show.” Here, she plays a young teacher from Philadelphia in her second year on the job. That means she’s new enough not to be jaded – yet. When she sees relatively small things that can and should be fixed — flickering lights in the hallway, for example — she rolls up her sleeves: “Older teachers have a habit of giving in,” she tells the camera, “ but I am young, lively and know where they put the ladders.

His well-meaning efforts end up shutting out the school’s entire electrical system for the day, and the cascading domino effect is as funny as it is real. Her more seasoned colleagues can only stare at her with a tired, frustrated “I told you so” look in their eyes. “Thanks for trying,” one of them finally said. “Your overactive little heart was in the right place.”

Schools – both functional and less – probably benefit from this kind of youthful optimism and more seasoned realism mashup, and as a setting for a workplace comedy, it’s pretty ingenious: here’s what it’s for looks like when your work seems absurd but also deeply meaningful. There’s nothing wrong with selling stuff, but as “The Office” and “Superstore” later clarified, it can all seem so pointless in the end. “Abbott Elementary” is adept at exploring the often petty little realities that make up any workday — where demoralizing and absurd systems forever thwart your best efforts — but the show, to its great advantage, goes beyond not to knock the clock. TV Land’s “Teachers” (also created by Chicago improv alumni) ran from 2016-2019 and covered similar territory through an affluent white suburban lens, while “Abbott Elementary,” which also finds plenty of humor in the unique personalities within, is set against the backdrop of a perpetually underfunded school system serving black students. Without being particularly awkward about it, the show is a hilarious and subversive portrait of a profession that has long been underpaid and taken for granted.

It’s worth comparing the runtime success of “Abbott Elementary” with that of another new workplace comedy, NBC’s “American Auto.” Created by former “Superstore” showrunner Justin Spitzer (with “Superstore” alum Jon Barinholtz and Ana Gasteyer among the cast), it takes place in the executive offices of a fictional Detroit automaker. The format is the same single-camera mockumentary style as its predecessors (and as well as “Abbott Elementary”), but there’s nothing about it that lands. I’m not sure a new comedy about busy, in-person white-collar work feels particularly incisive amid our COVID-19 reality. Then there’s the ongoing story about a young white female executive who sleeps with a black factory worker, only to then try to get him transferred because his presence makes her uncomfortable. I’m not saying this kind of sexual harassment isn’t realistic, I’m saying it’s not funny. A workplace comedy has to be more than awkward. Jim Halpert glances at the camera. times and office personalities out of the ordinary. He also needs to find humor in the daily grind in a way that feels honest and recognizable.

What “Abbott Elementary” absolutely does. The fresh-faced newbies are Brunson’s Janine and Chris Perfetti’s silly Jacob (I appreciate that, despite their relative youth, neither of them seem particularly pop culture-savvy and Janine is an ever-dowdy dresser). They always compare themselves to their more experienced colleagues: Sheryl Lee Ralph’s Barbara (a stylish and mostly unflappable kindergarten teacher) and Lisa Ann Walter’s Melissa (a tough South Philly sophomore teacher). There’s also the substitute teacher who seems to be settling in for the long haul, played by Tyler James Williams (best known as the title character in “Everybody Hates Chris”).

Then there’s the headmistress of the school played by Janelle James, who is basically the character of Michael Scott from the series: a fundamentally involved and ridiculous person who is in some way in a position of authority. Two things about that: James found a really fun way to inhabit such a large and insufferable type of character, and “Abbott Elementary” himself has some good instincts about how much time that character deserves in any given episode (per excess of less rather than more).

“Abbott Elementary” is first and foremost a showcase for extremely talented and funny women, and I’m in the bag for any comedy that has the smarts to take advantage of Ralph’s incredible talents. I didn’t know about Walter’s previous work, but she’s exceptional here as a lady on the street who says things like, “I have plenty of power outlets in class to supply me with everything I need. I need. It’s not my fault you didn’t want to participate in the case.

“To be fair”, adds one of her colleagues, “none of us said no, we just had a few questions”, to which she answers without hesitation: “And I said that was a little too many questions .”

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