Why Abbott Elementary should be your next box set
Nathanael Smith | On 03, Jul 2022
American TV of the 21st century has a few staples that it can’t seem to shake: police procedurals; medical dramas; and sitcoms set in workplaces. When one ends, a new one must emerge to fill its space in the vacuum. After the days of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Parks and Rec and 30 Rock, it was beginning to feel like a while since a new workplace sitcom had arrived. Where was the latest show starring someone who had previously worked in sketch comedy, featuring a zany cast of characters who only ever interact with one another and don’t have lives outside of where they work?
Enter Abbott Elementary, a sitcom set in an underfunded primary school written by and starring the delightful Quinta Brunson. It’s almost exactly what you’re expecting from that set-up, offering little that is new but absolutely scratching that workplace sitcom itch. It’s funny, sweet-natured and immensely likeable.
Each episode has an easy-to-follow structure. There’s an A plot of substance featuring two of the ensemble, and a sillier B plot following three others. The A plot ends with an emotional resolution, the B plot ends with a punchline. The mockumentary style, used to popular effect in The Office, adds to the familiarity, as do tropes such as “debating about the best pizza” and “two characters with different personalities bonding over a shared hobby that they approach differently.” Even the characters include many time-honoured archetypes: Janine Teagues (Brunson) is the enthusiastic overachiever (Santiago in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Leslie Knope in Parks and Rec) and Barbara Howard (Sheryl Lee Ralph) is the grumpy veteran adored by said overachiever (Holt, Ron Swanson, even Dr Cox in Scrubs).
If this sounds critical, it isn’t supposed to be – Abbott Elementary works within a genre and does it well, without yet breaking the mould. Where it does bring freshness is in the show’s setting. Each episode chronicles the trials of running a school in a neighbourhood of Philadelphia that has a Black-majority population and is cruelly underfunded and ignored by the state. The conversations between the teachers, as they attempt to navigate these challenges, have a realistic combination of idealism and weariness. It never stops being funny, but it does add an edge of real-world awareness that was sorely lacking in the likes of Parks and Rec.
The vast majority of workplace sitcoms hit their stride in seasons two or three, because they depend on affection for the characters built up over time. This has all the right ingredients to enjoy a similar lift going into Season 2, even if at the moment it all feels a little too familiar to really leap off the screen. However, if easygoing sitcoms are your thing, this is – by some distance – the best new show that’s streaming right now.