1, 2, 3: All Eyes on ‘Abbott Elementary’

In the ever-changing landscape of modern-day television, ‘Abbott Elementary’ seals its place in the history books through seamless sitcom comedy with the complex, real-world, roadblocks of being an elementary school teacher.


Tammy Lam

The title sequence of ‘Abbott Elementary’ sets the scene while highlighting Black excellence through a colorful mural.

“Well, have a great day,” an animated Ms. Janine Teagues remarks to her boss. “Don’t tell me what kind of day to have,” responds Ava, the principal. This typical exchange is something to expect when tuning into an episode of ABC’s Abbott Elementary. Filmed in a mockumentary style, this show is a perfect example of a fresh sitcom; the school’s primarily black student body and funding issues give a unique glimpse into the structural problems of the American public school system.

Airing every Wednesday, the workplace comedy follows the principal and five teachers at Abbott Elementary School, centering around the troubles that arise in the school. Rather than plaster heartwarming, adorable anecdotes from teachers onto a screen, they display the realities. 

Abbott’s foray into the intricate lives of teachers marks a perspective that has gone largely unexplored on television as a whole. While many other careers have a large catalog of various comedy programs, teachers do not. In Season 1 episode 3 of the show, entitled “Wishlist,” the main character, Ms. Janine Teagues (Quinta Brunson) creates a wishlist for her students’ school supplies but is not able to create outside buzz. So, she asks Ava (Janelle James), a self-titled TikTok queen and principal of the school, to make a new social media post. Ava’s video, however, creates a sensation that has influencers buzzing to help out a “poverty-stricken” school. The episode, while finding humor in the extremes of it all, centers around the core message of how social media likes to make charity cases out of schools in need. 

The issues discussed in the show aren’t minimized by the comedic tone. Instead, the hyperbole sparks watchers to actively rethink their privilege. TikToks and viral videos often sensationalize activism into performances, and the show blatantly criticizes the spectacle without being self-righteous. Despite the attention-hungry adults, the black students of the school are not a statistic and remain the most valued — this is highlighted by the refreshing positivity of Janine. Gabby Kimbrough, a playwright and graduate of Vassar College, said, “I hope Janine makes determined, quirky, and intelligent black children feel seen. Representation in media is so important, especially for young viewers. It is important that children see themselves included in the mainstream, so they don’t grow up feeling isolated from society.”

The show also fleshes out various other complex personalities through their work qualms. One character, Gregory Eddie (Tyler James Williams), shines in Season 2, Episode 1, “Development Day.” Gregory, a new full-time teacher, is overwhelmed by the teacher curriculum he receives. Overthinking his ability to teach all the material, he impulsively yet meticulously plans out the entire year. He remarks in the episode, “imagining the worst thing that could possibly happen is one of my best qualities.” The episode effectively captures Gregory’s care and concern for his students, while acknowledging the unrealistic expectations given to teachers in having to constantly achieve the impossible. “Gregory sets a positive example of gentle but stern manhood for black children,” said Kimbrough, regarding his portrayal. 

Barbara Howard (Sheryl Lee Ralph), a first-grade teacher, offers sage advice to him, without dismissing his positive intentions. Although every episode includes light-hearted teasing, struggling characters are not constantly the butt of the joke; instead, their concerns are addressed and heard, even in ludicrous situations. Barbara goes through her own roadblock in “New Tech”; as an older teacher, she finds difficulty in adapting to learning new methods and techniques. Although she imparts her knowledge to younger teachers like Gregory, she is not confined to simply being an older model for her younger coworkers. 

Melissa Schemmenti (Lisa Ann Walters), a second and third-grade teacher, carries her classic Philadelphia toughness to her job but faces challenges when she is forced to endure both grades in a combined class. Schemmenti refuses help from a school aid at first, claiming she doesn’t need one due to her experience and veteran status as an educator. Viewers find humor in Melissa’s comical outbursts with bleeped crude language despite the innocuous school setting, an object of playfulness within the writing and directing. 

In “Story Samurai,” the show touches on history-teacher Jacob Hill (Chris Perfetti) and his position as a white teacher in a black school. The show, in its usual unique fashion, works to address this issue with pop culture references. In a conversation with Jacob, Janine compares Jacob to Sandra Bullock in Blind Side where she plays a white adopted mother of a black football player Michael. Unlike its book inspiration, the film fails to develop Bullock’s background growing up with a racist family and works to dispel her biases. Thus, her work to help Michael in school is interpreted as healing her own guilt, rather than aiding his needs. A shocked Jacob (and Janine) agree that her comparison went too far due to Jacob’s genuine disposition. Still, Jacob’s ability to further realize the weight of his role on his peers and students showcases another writing strength: show not tell. Mature self-awareness in comedies rarely exists, and when it does, it’s overdrawn and overemphasized. Here, the quirky dialogue cuts against the tension, calling for a reflection of privilege in a lighthearted manner.

Quinta Brunson, the creator, writer, and star of the show makes it clear where her roots lie. Raised in West Philadelphia and the daughter of a kindergarten teacher, Brunson’s inspirations shine in the execution of the show. Despite all the challenges these teachers face, the heart stands out. “The character that stands out to me is Janine because of how optimistic she is,” said Nafisa Islam ’25. “She does a lot of things, like trying her best to make her students feel happy and satisfied.” 

The Abbott Elementary cast and crew genuinely care about the show’s subject matter. They recently held a sweepstakes contest, which gave out donations to real Philadelphia elementary school teachers who have the same dedication and care for their students that the show strives to bring light to. 

Whether it’s Jacob signing to a new student in ASL or the drive that Barbara carries to make sure her student with a wheelchair receives proper accommodations, the show takes a page out of reality. When asked about the inclusion of diverse voices in entertainment, Islam said, “it really matters because it helps people to get better perspectives of others. In general, it helps people to be more informed about each other, and it allows for everyone to feel like they are welcomed and heard.”  Kimbrough also said, “Children need to have role models that remind them of themselves.” Abbott Elementary gives a voice to those not often showcased, and in turn, contributes to the comedy space in enlightening ways.

At the latest Emmy Awards, Abbott Elementary came away with three statuettes: Outstanding Casting for a Comedy Series, Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series, and Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for Sheryl Lee Ralph. Since its first season and these awards, Abbott Elementary has since been growing its audience and engagement every week. Season 2 is currently airing and releasing episodes on Hulu, with the final episode of this season set to air on January 18th, 2023. For just thirty minutes every week, viewers are transported back to the precarious world of elementary school through the wondrous journey that is Abbott Elementary.

Gabby Kimbrough, a playwright and graduate of Vassar College, said, “I hope Janine makes determined, quirky, and intelligent black children feel seen. Representation in media is so important, especially for young viewers. It is important that children see themselves included in the mainstream, so they don’t grow up feeling isolated from society.”