On April 12, the season finale of “Abbott Elementary,” titled “Zoo Balloon,” aired. Created by Quinta Brunson, whose career as a social media comedian and content creator has long been familiar to avid internet users, this series is Brunson’s homage to her favorite teacher, reminiscent of her Philadelphia school days.
The show follows the usual 22-minute format of sitcoms, similar to iconic shows like “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “Community,” although “Abbott Elementary’s” most similar senior precedent is “The Office.” The show is a mockumentary and workplace comedy, with many moments where characters would look into the camera in exasperation, “The Office”-style. The in-universe explanation for the film crew is that “they’re documenting the underfunded and poorly run schools in America,” truly setting up our expectations of the school.
The show’s strongest facet, to me, lies in its characters. Brunson plays the main character Janine Teagues, an awkward, rookie second-grade teacher whose endlessly positive attitude brings annoyance and change to her senior co-workers. Her relationship with her boyfriend Tariq, a genuine yet useless guy, and her budding mutual romance with substitute teacher Gregory Eddie seems to be set up for a tiring love triangle, but it is handled delicately as the season progresses. This could be said for all other characters as well, which is a feat for a show that just aired its first season. The ensemble cast includes Teagues’ peer Jacob Hill, who struggles to get his students to respect him, a teacher of 20 years. The show also features the witty and shady Barbara Howard, who feels like she’s being left behind, Melissa Schemmenti with her own budding romance and the outwardly outrageous Principal Ava Coleman with a hidden heart.
Despite its ”monster-of-the-week,” or rather “problem-of-the-week” format, it is the subtle character moments that bind the show together and make it more than your average sitcom. It takes obvious pride in its Philadelphia roots, despite the school’s problems that all came from having no money. The show doesn’t shy away from the real problems their school district faces, being a majority Black and brown student district in North Philadelphia, from the discrimination of gifted programs to the school-to-prison pipeline, also portraying the low-quality lunches provided to students. The problems are faced head-on, yet the show is still able to keep its lighthearted tone through the characters’ even more ridiculous reactions. The show’s bright color scheme reflects this optimism, with brightly lit classrooms and bright colors everywhere.
It’s important to point out that Brunson named the show after her sixth-grade teacher Ms. Joyce Abbott, inspired by her dedication to all of her students. This inspiration really shines in the show — it fundamentally lacks mean-spirited energy. Even characters that are the worst, like Coleman, who spent school money on herself, they still aren’t portrayed as a one-dimensional vile person or despised by others. The show’s philosophy centered on kindness and sacrifices for the students.
For audiences that haven’t known the works of Brunson, this is a surprisingly strong debut. But for those that had followed her career at one point or another, we are happy to see her finally get her own show, after years of short YouTube series either for Buzzfeed or on her independent channel and comedy skits. It’s like welcoming an old friend back, excited to see what she has accomplished.