ABC’s Abbott Elementary is a whole intellectual, absurdist vibe.
In the tradition of The Office and Parks & Recreation, Abbott is the creation of agile and subtle comedic genius, Quinta Brunson, who stars as second-year teacher Janine Teagues. Brunson leads a stellar, diverse ensemble, and a slew of child actors of African descent (African American and Afro-Latinx), who flesh out the cast.
Teagues’ antagonist is a scheming-narcissistic-sexually harassing-doomsday prepper, Principal Ava Coleman played by Janelle James. As despicable as Principal Coleman is, one cannot help but love her because she is so stylish, well-manicured and topped off by a lovely smile.
Wait. Narcissism is vile, and sexual harassment is immoral and illegal. The verdict is not yet in on doomsday preppers, especially considering the present pandemic.
OK, so liking Principal Coleman, who places her self-aggrandizement above the interest of the children, is beyond problematic. Plus, because of these traits, “she is awful at her job.” Even so, there is great interest in what personality quirk or deficit of hers will emerge with each episode. Who could foresee that she would be a doomsday prepper? We've also learned she is an unethical social media influencer. Her ethics depend on who she is posting and whether they won’t read the post. More on this later.
"Joyous" is one word audience members, particularly of a certain age, have upon each sight of the Sheryl Lee Ralph, who plays Teague’s fellow, senior teacher, and mother, Barbara Howard — “a proud Christian woman.” An original “Dreamgirl” from the Broadway musical Dreamgirls, Ralph has maintained her beauty, brilliance and timing. The pairing of Ralph and Brunson is a study in contrast in terms of their physicality and demeanor. As characters, Ralph, as Howard, seems a full foot taller than Brunson. Are not children far more often at least as tall if not taller than their parents? The height disparity lends itself to the quality that Teagues remains child-like, innocent, loving and wholly optimistic.
As the mother, Howard is far more seasoned, wise, pragmatic and direct. Ralph brings so much composure and compassion to her role. Her side-eye, swag, code-switching is sharp in each instance. She is neither a helicopter mom nor a tiger mom. Ralph’s character offers a refreshing take on mothering, where she is more of a mentor within the professional comedy setting. In each episode, thus far, she has given Brunson’s Teagues the opportunity to overstep even as she cautions her not to. In short, Howard allows Teagues to grow into your budding role as an educator in a fictional Philadelphia-based public elementary school. Howard deftly applies humor, dismay, sarcasm, support, affirmation and even a mother’s protection against Principal Coleman when she goes beyond the pale as a scheming narcissist is prone to do.
It is Howard who is subject to Coleman’s unethical overstepping in the realm of social media in the third episode. We even find that Coleman pads Teagues’s teacher’s supply wish list with self-care items in a virtual social media post. Principal Coleman is, to say the least, wild and opportunistic.
Philly is central to Abbott Elementary. There are references to the Eagles, the NFL club and the R&B group Boyz II Men, who are originally from Philadelphia. Lisa Ann Walter, of Parent Trap fame, plays Melissa Schemmenti, a veteran second grade teacher who brings a sense of Philly authenticity as an Italian from South Philly. Schemmenti is street-smart, the scion of a mass blue-collar network that she sources for the benefit of her colleagues and beloved students. She teaches the children the core curriculum and the street equivalent. For example, she teaches the children that 100 is also a c-note. Schemmenti and Howard are friends and colleagues. There is respect and equanimity between the two. In short, she is preparing them for life beyond the confines of Abbott Elementary and formal education.
Teague is not without colleagues. Chris Perfetti plays Jacob Hill, another second-year teacher like Teagues. She shared that they have been forged within “trauma bonding.” Hill is a well-read ally informed by the likes of public intellectual Cornell West and author Robin DiAneglo. Due to his propensity to share quotes and insights from his reading list and history of work somewhere on the continent of Africa, Teagues hilariously refers to Hill at one point as “Ta-Nehisi Quotes,” a reference to Ta-Nehisi Coates, New York Times bestselling author of Between the World and Me and The Water Dancer. Cultural references are expertly placed with each episode of Abbott Elementary.
Tyler James Williams who plays substitute teacher Gregory Eddie is a cultural reference in himself having played the lead in Everybody Hates Chris, a Chris Rock-inspired sitcom. There is an expressiveness in his eyes and facial expressions that plays well in the mockumentary genre. His tall, slender body with broad shoulders plays well as he brings a physicality to his role. He is a man among children in a world historically dominated by women. He is respectful of all. So much so, that when invited by Howard to “have a seat” at a child’s desk while seeking her advice, he does so without protestation. Somehow, he fits his lanky body in the narrow space between the back of the attached chair and the desk.
Abbott Elementary is an intelligent comedy. Full appreciation requires knowledge of cultural and historical references — with many, but not all, particular to the African American experience. A failure to read and to avail oneself to travel and a variety of people places Abbott Elementary beyond one’s comprehension.
In an early scene, Brunson and her writers make a point to depict the disparity, injustice and malfeasance that cities often engage in when investing in sports stadiums over and above the education of their children. This scene is reminiscent of the scene at the beginning of the first episode of Ava DuVernay and Colin Kaepernick’s outstanding Colin in Black & White, where it is made clear that the physical at the NFL Combine is a throwback to the auction block of the era of U.S. chattel slavery. The most athletic men of today are gaged like humans who were bought and sold.
Another actor who warrants mention is William Stanford Davis, who plays Mr. Johnson, the school’s janitor. He represents men of a certain age who by circumstance were either very skilled with their hands or had limited employment opportunities because of their melanin content and the era in which they were born. He is a janitor, but he rules his roost — building maintenance. Johnson also represents those who believe in conspiracy theories (or what are believed to be conspiracy theories). We learn, when Principal Coleman installs him as an emergency, temporary sub that, as he points to the word “Illuminati” on the board, “that runs the world, kids.” At another point, Teagues mentions that he “voted for Kanye for President.” Johnson is the embodiment of a nation’s failure to educate its citizenry — poignant for our time and fitting for this comedy.
Artists like Brunson, and a slew of creatives from BIPOC communities and their allies, are the consciousness of the United States. They are the ones who invest in understanding the past to positively inform the present and future. This is why it is great that Brunson and her team place education at the center. For this, we owe her mother, an educator, a debt of gratitude.