Dor do you remember the tearful exhaustion you felt studying at home during lockdown, and the unfathomable disbelief and raw gratitude you felt towards those who dedicate themselves daily to infusing knowledge into young minds; the deep reverence she earned for his pedagogical skills, as she drank a glass of wine for every minute she spent trying to instill basic facts into the heads of her recalcitrant youngsters? How deeply did you mean it when you lay on the ground every night and screamed to the heavens that all teachers should be bathed in gold and worshiped as gods, before you crawled into bed getting ready to start the whole damn thing tomorrow?
Abbott Elementary (Disney+) will bring back that time, but this time with laughs. Sometimes painful, bitter laughter, but laughter nonetheless. The new (for us, it’s been in the US for a year) mockumentary sitcom about an underfunded elementary school in West Philadelphia was created by comedian Quinta Brunson, whose mother taught at the same institution for 40 years. Brunson plays the young and still optimistic teacher Janine Teagues, who is always trying her best, beleaguered and frequently bewildered. “Excellent communication skills, Bria!” she tells her, relentlessly, while another child load tells her that she has vomited everywhere. When she’s not teaching, she’s researching the best way to raise funds for school supplies, trying to fix hallway lights, unlocking bathrooms, or adopting new educational methods that could help her underprivileged students. It’s a measure of Brunson’s skill as a writer and performer that, despite her palpable innate goodness, Janine is never conceited or boring, but so desperately attractive that long before the end of the first episode you only want good things for her, forever.
Janine wants to be like her colleague, veteran teacher and effortless authority model Barbara Howard, played with statuesque magnificence by Broadway star Sheryl Lee Ralph, only without the misanthropic bent. “I think the work is trying to make things better!” she protests, when Barbara tries to corner her ambitions (which are mainly to raise funds for a new carpet, after one of her students urinated on her past the point of no return). “I think that work is working with what you have so that it doesn’t let you down,” says Bárbara. Or, as another teacher, mob-affiliated Melissa Schemmenti (Lisa Ann Walter), puts it: You have to care so much that you refuse to let yourself get burned. “Who is going to take care of the children then?” The tension between abstract ideals and the necessary compromise in a deeply flawed system is what drives the show and gives it its astringency.
Filling the rest of the staff room, where they go to eat their dreary lunches if they have time, is sophomore teacher Jacob (Chris Perfetti, a painfully determined “white ally” in the mostly black school); substitute teacher Gregory (Tyler James Williams), who also acts as a slow love interest for Janine; and the director, Ava Coleman, who shows up from time to time to aggrandize herself while her exhausted staff watches in silent contempt. Ava is played by Janelle James, whose limitless charisma is harnessed in her role as the gloriously self-obsessed director. The job was originally given to someone else, but… “I go to the same church as the superintendent,” she delightedly explains to the camera crew, “and I caught him cheating on his wife with the deaconess. And I needed a job!” As far as Gregory is concerned, she too is a serial sexual harasser, but right now he is too paralyzed with fear to know what to do about it.
The plots are small, often revolving around the teachers’ attempts to solve the latest and most pressing supply shortage at their school, though Melissa also brings one of her teammates along to help Jacob with a lesson on history of unionization. However, the pace never falters, the portrayals of the characters are perfect, the timing of the actors is impeccable. And the breakneck pace of the jokes, even without the fleeting glances of disbelief, embarrassment, or recognition on camera that are the hallmark of mockumentary, take your breath away. Have Parks and Recreationthe sense of community, Modern Familyprecision tools, ted lassoIt’s charming, but it’s its own thing, hilarious. Despite, or, of course, because of the truth that tells her underlying story of deprivation in real life.