Quinta Brunson's Abbott Elementary: How the show talks about the life of public school teachers

Quinta Brunson's Abbott Elementary, which won two Emmys is one of the smartest and most accomplished new sitcoms in several years.

Aditya Mani Jha September 19, 2022 11:12:40 IST
Quinta Brunson's Abbott Elementary:  How the show talks about the life of public school teachers

There are several images throughout the first season of Quinta Brunson’s sitcom Abbott Elementary that capture the seemingly impossible odds that public school teachers have to fight on a daily basis, but the one that took the cake for me was Brunson’s character Janine (a second-grade teacher) jostling with a malfunctioning toilet towards the end of an episode. Earlier in that same episode we saw teachers and children alike being spattered by the regurgitating flush and now Janine had decided to do something about it herself —because the perennially underfunded Willard R. Abbott Elementary school has no money even to hire a plumber. Janine, who stands 4 feet 11 inches tall, is on tip-toe, watching a YouTube video on how to fix a leaky toilet and soon, thinks that she has succeeded in her endeavour… only for the flush to spatter her hard, across the torso.

Abbott Elementary won two Emmys last week; Brunson for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series and Sheryl Lee Ralph for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series. Ahead of the second season, which starts on September 21 (streaming on Hotstar in India). It has quickly become the most-loved new sitcom on network television, having been allotted Modern Family’s Wednesday 9pm time slot on the channel ABC (American Broadcasting Corporation). Traditionally, this timeslot has been given to the most accessible, broadly appealing sitcoms, stuff that entire families would watch together.

And that’s exactly what Abbott Elementary has proven to be. People have identified a small part of themselves in the struggles and triumphs and idiosyncrasies of Janine and her colleagues; the formidable Ms. Howard (Sheryl Lee Ralph), the bemused-but-upstanding Gregory Eddie (Tyler James Williams) the tough-as-nails Melissa Schemmenti (Lisa Ann Walter), the socially awkward Jacob Hill (Chris Perfetti) and the garrulous, domineering principal Ava Coleman (Janelle James, an absolute treasure and fan favourite). With the second season a heartbeat away, it’s worth taking a closer look at the nuts and bolts of this superbly written and performed comedy.

What makes Abbott Elementary tick      

One of the most endearing things about Abbott Elementary is that the show does not have villains in the conventional sense of the word. During the first few episodes, we are introduced to Principal Ava as a potential villain. She is domineering, she likes to put people down in public, she’s self-obsessed and a little bit cruel on occasion. However, through the rest of the season, we see that Ava, too, has certain skills that can help both the teachers and the students at Abbott Elementary. For example, she is quite adept at Instagram and she helps the teachers make viral fundraising videos, because of which they are able to raise enough money to get all the classroom supplies they need and more.

A natural corollary of this sentiment is that there are several different models of leadership that Abbott Elementary champions. There’s Janine with her “hyperactive little heart that’s in the right place”, as Ms. Howard put it. There’s Ms Howard herself who leads her class with dignity, gravitas and a healthy dose of old-fashioned virtues like discipline and fortitude. There’s Jacob, who overcomes his own initial bout of nervousness to lean into the ‘student’s punching bag’ persona. In one episode we see his students roasting him mercilessly… until he finds a way to incorporate said roasting in his lesson scheme. Melissa, on the other hand, shows no weaknesses in front of her students and even invites her working-class friends to talk to them, because she feels that children should have exposure to a wide variety of guest speakers, not just the ones who sound posh or look well-dressed.

Abbott Elementary wants you to know that the teacher’s role is to help the students move towards the best versions of themselves, not to put on some persona that has nothing in common with their origins, their values. This is a particularly important message circa 2022, when we’re seeing the gradual ‘flattening’ of educational systems everywhere, a process that disproportionately affects students from underprivileged students (like the majority of students at Abbott Elementary).

Classroom dramas and dramedies that worked

Before Abbott’s Elementary came to be there were two other American shows that, according to me, captured that special something that sets classroom dramas/dramedies apart as a genre. The first was Boston Public (2000-2004), created by veteran TV czar David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, Boston Legal, Big Little Lies et al). Chi McBride starred as Steven Harper, the righteous principal of Winslow High, a fictional Boston public school. The rest of the ensemble cast played ‘stock teacher’ types more than anything else. There’s a deeply conservative, borderline racist teacher (Fyvush Finkel) who has a problem with a Black girl who “looks older than she is” and refuses to wear a bra. There’s a perpetually nervous teacher (Loretta Divine) whose story arc culminates in her leaving a note on her blackboard, in which she threatens to kill herself.

The students themselves also represented a good mixture of American socio-political positions, attitudes and demographics. In a crossover episode with Kelley’s other big show those days, Boston Legal, a white conservative student drags Principal Harper to court (hiring Crane, Poole and Schmidt, the firm where Boston Legal is set). The provocation? That Principal Harper ordered the school’s cable TV operator to shut down the feed of Fox News. Harper feels that Fox News, with its well-documented history of lying and fabrication for partisan purposes, was an actively harmful influence on the kids. The aggrieved white conservative student felt that this was a freedom of expression issue.

In one of my favourite story arcs, a temp teacher named Henry Preston is pulled up by vice-principal Ronnie Cooke (Jeri Ryan) because he hugged a child who was upset and crying loudly. In a lot of American state schools, physical contact of any kind with students of any age, is a big no-no, even in circumstances like these. Look at this exchange between Cooke and Preston, where Preston is taking what he feels is a common-sense approach to the problem while Cooke is trying to implement the existing rules as well as she can. They’re both driven by a sense of duty and a sense of incredulity and that makes for riveting TV.

 Ronnie Cooke: I do wonder if you’re built to be a teacher.

Henry Preston: Why?

Ronnie Cooke: In a nutshell, you’re not very good with boundaries, and boundaries are essential in a high school.

Henry Preston: Why?

Ronnie Cooke: Because these kids are at such a vulnerable age. I mean, they look like adults, but they’re really just children in many ways.

Henry Preston: Hmm. So, by those standards, I’m being suspended for hugging a child that got hurt and was crying?

The other classroom show that made a significant impact on pop culture in these last 10 years is, of course, Dan Harmon’s much-loved Community, starring Joel McHale, Gillian Jacobs, Donald Glover, Danny Pudi et al. Harmon, who’s the co-creator and showrunner of the Adult Swim animated comedy Rick and Morty these days, is just a wickedly clever TV writer who knows when to turn up the irony several notches and when to revert to unironic sincerity.

The central conceit of Community is, of course, the fact that it’s set in a community college in Colorado and so all the students are grown-ups as opposed to children/teenagers. This means that the emotional and socio-political issues being discussed through the lens of these people’s lives are very different — and much more ‘unfiltered’. And all the characters themselves are delightful: the anarchist activist Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs), the enigmatic pop culture-whiz Abed Nasir (Danny Pudi), the former high school football star Troy Barnes (Donald Glover). When pushed to the emotional limit, these characters often let loose with the most spectacular rants; Harmon is an extremely talented writer of rants. Like this monologue delivered by Abed, directed at Britta when the latter forces him into an ersatz therapy session with her. This was part of Abed’s “Evil Abed” persona, one of the show’s recurring gags.

“Do you know what kind of person becomes a psychologist? A person that wishes deep down that everyone more special than them was sick because healthy sounds so much more exciting than boring. You’re average, Britta Perry. You’re every kid on the playground who didn’t get picked on. You’re a business casual potted plant, a human white sale. You’re VH1 Robocop 2 and Back to the Future 3. You’re the center slice of a square cheese pizza. Actually, that sounds delicious. I’m the center slice of a square cheese pizza. You’re Jim Belushi.”

Shows like Abbott Elementary, Boston Public and Community are a reminder that while your schooling doesn’t define you as an adult, it is one of the most important influences upon your formative years (or even later, as is the case for Community). The constant tug-of-war between nature and nurture that these shows depict makes for some engrossing television.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based independent writer and journalist, currently working on a book of essays on Indian comics and graphic novels.

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