WHERE TO WATCH:
WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
A group of dedicated and passionate teachers are thrown together in a Philadelphia public school where despite the odds stacked against them, they are determined to help their students succeed in life.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
Every morning my mother, a Grade 2 teacher, used to make extra sandwiches when she went to school in case the children in her class did not have lunch. This was not a ploy for sympathy, it was natural, part of her routine, and it was something that she and many other teachers of disadvantaged schools often dealt with. Abbott Elementary is an ode to the teachers of the world that go above and beyond what is required of them to create a stimulating learning environment for their students.
Abbott Elementary tells the story of a group of teachers at an underprivileged school in West Philadelphia. The series follows the mockumentary style and is told from the perspective of a documentary crew who are making a film about the lives of teachers at underfunded schools. The series lead is Janine Teagues (Quinta Brunson), an optimistic second-year second-grade teacher who often uses her ingenuity to make the class better for her students.
Although Brunson (who is also the creator of the series) said she was inspired by The Office with the mockumentary style and the fact that it was a workplace comedy, it reminded me more of two other workplace comedies – Parks and Recreation and Superstore. Parks and Recreation in that it has an optimistic tone to it, mainly because of the lead character Janine; Parks is similar in that Leslie Knope's optimism bleeds off into how the show is perceived. It reminded me of Superstore in how it takes a common career that many find mundane and shines a light on its challenges and complexities.
Brunson is close to the subject as, just like me, her mother was a public school teacher for 40 years, making each episode's plot lines seem more genuine. Most of the episodes centre around the lack of resources that the school has and how the teachers work together to solve it. We also learn as different teachers use their skills and knowledge to solve their problems. For example, Barbara Howard (Sheryl Lee Ralph) is a seasoned kindergarten teacher who learns to make do with what she has and still provides a stimulating learning experience for her students, and Melissa Schemmenti (Lisa Ann Walter) is another older teacher who has connections to the mob and manages to 'arrange' supplies for her students.
But the series does not sugarcoat the dire situations that schools are in either. Yes, the teachers, in the best case scenarios, go above and beyond to make do, but should they have to? That is the question that the show seems to ask. And by putting the younger and optimistic Janine, who is eager to change things, next to the tired and jaded Barbara, who has just learned to be content with what she has, shows how Janine could become if she does not get support.
But through the topics that it deals with, it is not to say that the show is any less funny. It follows the similar beats of other sitcoms in that conflict is usually resolved within the episode. There is a will-they, won't-they romance between Janine and substitute teacher Gregory (Tyler James Williams) that will remind fans of Jim and Pam from The Office or Amy and Jonah from Superstore. There is even an insufferable boss, played to perfection by Janelle James. And further, the writing is just so razor-sharp that I was consistently laughing throughout the series.
And all of us that have been through the public school system will know these characters: the teacher who tries too hard to be down with the students, the older teacher that you know you can't mess with, and the one teacher that you would trust with your life. But the show also leans into absurdities as the best comedies are wont to do, and we watch as Janine causes a power outage at the school or the teachers wage war against the students over a viral trend called 'desking'.
Abbott Elementary is not only a fun watch; it feels personal and like a warm hug. Perhaps that is what makes this show so special: these are our parents, our mentors, our friends, and our loved ones. We know how much they give to their profession; it is about time they start receiving the admiration and accolades they deserve.