Review: How ‘Abbott Elementary’ was more than just a hit

Editor’s note: Gene Seymour is a critic who has written about music, film and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @GeneSeymour. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. See more reviews on CNN.


Wednesday night’s season two premiere of “Abbott Elementary” felt a little… I don’t know what word works best… Striking? Curiosity? However, a modestly distributed chronicle of a tax year was more than I expected. at an elementary school in South Philadelphia.

Such, I believe, are the remnants of success. That’s what happens when a witty, intelligent prime-time comedy manages to become one of the few broadcast network series (in this age of streaming and cable blockbusters) within a year to garner critical and popular acclaim, and with it. three Emmys.

However, as with the school’s income, dorky and aggressivet Second-year teacher Janine Teagues (star creator-producer of the show’s Emmy-winning Quinta Brunson), surprised me with the opening of the new season with a packed tailgating barbecue in the school parking lot the week before school started.

Was there a game that day? Did it matter? Not Ava Coleman (Janelle James), the school’s narcissistic and absurdly understated principal, who was in the middle of it all in full Eagles gear and her usual obliviousness.

Also: How in the name of Philadelphia Flyers hockey legend Bobby Clarke did this show get Gritty, the giant orange whatchamacallit of the Flyers mascot, as the opening night guest star?

With Gritty Janelle James, Lisa Ann Walter and Sheryl Lee Ralph

Could this be an acknowledgment that “Abbott Elementary” has not only become a model of contemporary television, but a landmark in its home city? Reading Terminal, the Liberty Bell, statues of William Penn and Rocky Balboa, and lovable, if unkempt, cheese?

If so, the show has hit its stride, and then some.

Ever since the pilot episode that first aired last December (Brunson won an Emmy for comedy writing), every episode of “Philly” has been, for lack of a better word, sweet, “Abbott Elementary.” ” The language, the sense of place, the ethnic references, the class distinctions and yes, those Eagles jerseys… are all seamlessly, subtly woven into the overall design of the show with the insight and compassion one would expect from Brunson, a West Philadelphian. Born and raised the daughter of a kindergarten teacher.

at Quinta Brunson

I sensed this sensitivity from the jump. I’ve lived in Philadelphia for the past 40 years, and in this rough, hot, often sentimental, and always fighting city of the suburbs, it takes a lot of resources to do even the most basic things.

In other words, when looking for repairs, fixes, supplies, or anything else that can’t be obtained through “regular” means, the real Philadelphian asks around, haggles, mocks through back channels. After all that, you get everything you are looking for. Maybe Probably

Settling for less is a recurring theme in “Abbott Elementary.” The second season, after all, began with veteran kindergarten teacher Barbara Howard (Sheryl Lee Ralph), struggling to get a tough school system a desk suitable enough for her wheelchair-bound first grader. (The outstanding Ralph was awarded a supporting actor Emmy for his poignant and commanding performance as the stoic, religious and pragmatic Barbara.)

By Sheryl Lee Ralph

All of Abbott’s employees have to bypass the usual channels to get what they need, whether it’s crayons, picture books or, like last season, a single egg. Janine hoped to raise a chicken as a lesson for her students on the Miracle of Life – it turned out well… but it was more of a debacle than a miracle (think reptiles).

Because of this, Janine couldn’t blame her street-smart, no-nonsense colleague Melissa Schemmenti (Lisa Ann Walter), who got the egg rush of what everyone thinks were off-the-book “connections.” He didn’t know what was in the egg, but that’s not his problem. And yet this week we learn that Melissa’s problem this new year is that she suddenly has to take on an extra third grader in her second grade class.

So it looks like we’ll find out how Melissa copes with more as well as less. But that’s part of what “Abbott’s” viewers have become accustomed to: watching its characters grow, improvise and surprise us. We think of Jacob Hill (Chris Perfetti), the school’s history teacher, who at first seems like the archetype of a well-intentioned but clumsy white liberal, but who, over time, is more nuanced and wiser than Janine – and we – first suspect. .

by Tyler James Williams

More enigmatic, but alluring, is Gregory Eddie (Tyler James Williams), a reserved ex-substitute whose apparent mistrust barely masks his nascent romantic interest in Janine and Ava’s blackmailing of the principal into getting the job Greg wants. . Now that she’s a full-time teacher, maybe she’ll open up and relax.

But with this staff, it’s never a good idea to expect anything. If the series hadn’t been greenlit for a 13-episode season, we wouldn’t have discovered that Ava also has her own hidden insecurities, and a knack for choreographing step dances. We would never meet Barbara’s sophisticated grown-up daughter or Jacob’s gay lover. For that matter, we wouldn’t have seen Jacob beat Melissa like a drum at poker or double-dutch Janine. And we certainly wouldn’t have known that Mr. Johnson (William Stanford Davis), the school’s doting custodian, has led all these past lives, including as a U.S. Olympian.

“Abbott Elementary” is not just a show about teaching, but what teaches you. And one of its lessons is not to understand anyone or anything too quickly, but to give each person time and space to imagine themselves – and each other.

Exhibit A is Janine herself, who discovered in the season opener that all the awesomeness going back to school with him isn’t enough to get her through the emotional and financial wreckage of breaking up with him. childhood sweetheart Gritty had to give him a hug too, though everyone else around him knows he’ll need more than hugs in the coming weeks.

This leads to another lesson the show teaches: don’t take anything for granted. They are not always easy to grasp or figure out. But be prepared to accept surprises whenever and wherever.

It’s not unlike what “Ted Lasso” has promoted in his followers. But even so, “Abbott Elementary” carries a message with a hidden effect that’s airier and sharper than Apple TV+’s hit football comedies. I love them both, but I think I’m rooting more for the people in the teachers lounge than in the locker room to keep defying the odds.

Why? Because the world can always get fresh footballers. Right now, teachers need more.

Also, you know, Philly.