“Abbott Elementary” is a late arrival to ABC’s fall schedule — and it makes a strong case to stick around in primetime for a while.
The mockumentary-style comedy, written by and starring Quinta Brunson (“A Black Lady Sketch Show”), revolves around life at an inner-city elementary school in Brunson’s native city of Philadelphia — notably its staff of harried teachers and its unqualified principal, Eva Coleman (Janelle James), who’s there only because she caught the school superintendent in a compromising position.
Abbott Elementary is being filmed for a documentary about about “underfunded, poorly managed public schools in America,” which is glaringly obvious as the series opens and we meet its employees. There’s perky, earnest teacher Janine Teagues (Brunson), who’s trying to remain upbeat while dealing with the soul-crushing frustrations of bureaucratic red tape and staff departures (“trauma bonding” her co-workers, she calls it); no-nonsense Barbara Howard (Sheryl Lee Ralph), a “woman of God” and who’s taught at the school for decades and knows how to navigate its pitfalls (she’s Janine’s idol) over-woke Jacob Hill (Chris Perfetti): “I teach history but live in the present”; the tough-talking Melissa Schemmenti (Lisa Ann Walter), who wonders if the camera crew are cops; and Gregory Eddie (Tyler James Williams), a substitute teacher.
Gregory was hired as the school’s principal before Ava fell into the job and she flirts with him endlessly and shamelessly. But, as the series continues, it’s obvious that he has chemistry with Janine… and she’s having creeping doubts about her boyfriend, Tariq, a man-child irresponsible wannabe rapper.
All the main characters walking the halls of “Abbott Elementary” are a “type” — it’s a sitcom, after all, and it’s expected — but they mesh well onscreen and distinguish themselves from each other vis a vis their particular quirks. Kudos to Brunson and her co-executive producers, TV vets Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker. I especially like Williams, 29, who starred on “Everybody Hates Chris” as a kid and has worked steadily on television ever since.
“Abbott Elementary” is briskly paced and doesn’t take a sledgehammer approach to the often-perilous state of inner-city schools and the collateral effects this has on teachers and parents. There’s no preachy pontificating here; Brunson uses a deft, delicate touch underscored with comedy that’s derived from believable situations and relationships — and not broad-stroke generalizations, as is often the case. Nothing is dumbed-down, and that’s helped, in part, by the fly-on-the-wall mockumentary format. Thankfully, the annoying mugging/eye-rolling/quizzical/obvious looks to the camera, too often a tempting fallback for actors in this format, are kept to a minimum.
The students at “Abbott Elementary” are in good hands.
“Abbott Elementary” premieres Tuesday (Dec. 7) at 9:30 p.m. on ABC.