Abbott Elementary Is Bringing Earnest Back



Abbott Elementary brings back Earnest

Before the impressive success of ABC’s “Abbott Elementary,” it seemed the hard-working, earnest heroes were done for. Writer/producer/star Quinta Brunson is changing this cultural trend. The show’s central protagonist, Janine Teagues (played by Brunson) is an engaging, well-meaning, and chronically uncool teacher who audiences can’t help but root for. And the public presents itself in a major way. “Abbott Elementary” quadrupled its initial ratings to become one of ABC’s most popular shows in just a few months. It recently rivaled the juggernaut’s “Modern Family” finale in terms of ratings.

A workplace comedy about an underfunded, mostly black elementary school in Philadelphia seems like an unlikely hit, especially now. Other serious fare like “Parks and Recreation,” “Ted Lasso” and “Hamilton” are facing backlash. We live in such complicated times – it’s hard to honestly and sincerely raise people who sacrifice themselves and make a difference in their communities.

But that’s what Abbott Elementary does, and it’s not just about comfort. It’s smart TV for one, using the sitcom formula to its advantage. Each episode features Janine trying to improve something about Abbott Elementary. Her endeavors never go as planned, as nothing is straightforward when it comes to parenting (and she exists in a 22-minute comedy). That said, Janine usually makes things a bit better, but not in the way she had imagined. She gets the creepy and dark hallway fixed even though it takes a school-wide power outage. She figures out how to have more enrichment opportunities for children after discovering that there is a budget for a “gifted and talented” program, deviating from the pattern she participated in as a student when she see how this discourages the majority of children. These incremental changes are good. They are satisfying conclusions to complex problems and part of that is their realism. Abbott Elementary does not claim to have the solution to solving educational disparities. But progress is still (mostly) possible, and it’s refreshing to see this week and week on network TV.

One of the reasons the show works so well is Quinta Brunson’s personal journey. She writes what she knows as a Philadelphia native whose mother taught public schools for 40 years. As a black woman, she’s also able to steer us away from white saviors and their frustrating blind spots, which I can’t help but think is a big part of why shows like “Parks and Recreation” aren’t haven’t aged so well. The benevolent main character of this one, Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope, loved his town, Pawnee, and served it tirelessly. But there was a running gag where she mentioned the city’s racist history, explaining what was going on in a mural at City Hall, say, without any analysis. The joke was that this story was terrible, but so what? Knope largely did not address this issue. She accepted it as a sad fact and went about her business. Janine Teagues would immediately start working on a cure, and while it probably wouldn’t work the way she envisioned, it would help some people.

As serious entertainment, the teacher-as-hero trope is well worn, and it works best when the central teacher is from the community. That’s why “Stand and Deliver” still delivers when movies like “Dangerous Minds” are now the very definition of cringe. And “Abbott Elementary” advances the genre in several ways. First, Janine is not alone. All the teachers (well, all but the one white woman who kicks a student in the pilot and is summarily fired) show up every day and work hard. They too try things big and small to make a difference, and they represent a mix of identities (races, genders, sexualities, class backgrounds), which shows that there is no one way to do this. job or some type of person who can help.

Principal Ava Coleman (Janelle James) is a prime example. She begins as an obstacle, the adult least concerned about the well-being of the students. But she soon turned out to have skills that can make a difference, helping Janine raise money for her class by creating the perfect social media video, for example. Ava just needs guidance on how to use her power for good. In the ninth episode, she becomes fully humanized as we learn that some of her bluster is merely a performance. But, above all, part of its superficiality is genuine, allowing the character to remain imperfect and therefore human.

In “Abbott Elementary,” not all black women like Janine and Ava are selfless doers or superficial incompetents. They are superimposed and not definable by a single narrative. Even for being so mission-driven, Janine also has her ego moments – she lets an old friend from college get in the way of the kids’ art project in an effort to be cool, she insults a fellow teacher in his attempt for the best. And it fits our moment so well too. There are a lot of non-black people who assume that every black woman is either the guy Janine or Ava represent, or a saint, or a sinner. But that’s not how people actually operate, and part of the genius of this sitcom is to take the humanity of black women for granted and go from there.

“Abbott Elementary” also advances the genre of teacher-as-hero stories with just the right amount of weight with high stakes but also on a human scale. The staff aren’t founding a nation or even running a city government, but what they do matters – children matter. It’s also very helpful that “Abbott Elementary” honors its community, valuing even parents who don’t seem to care about school as real, regular people.

That’s really what sets it apart – “Abbott Elementary” earns its seriousness. From his understanding of the issue to the lived experience of the creator; from its play with the structure to its rootedness in the community. He is clear on his stakes and his villains. His servant heroes don’t have a badge or even an office. But they are vulnerable and funny, growing up and laughing. I hope “Abbott Elementary” is the type of show that cranks out a hundred copies, reimagining what a hero does, what they look like, and what they accomplish.

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