(courtesy IMP Awards)
Work is a strange thing.
Pretty much all of us do it, compelled by a valid need for food, water, shelter and the occasional (or more; thank you eBay) unnecessary shiny thing or fabulous dinner out, to get out there each day and put in eight or so hours with people and environments we often have little to no choice over, and which we usually survive than actually thrive in.
And if we do manage to get ahead of the barely-survived point in the work curve, it’s purely down to the fact that we have been lucky to find that one person who makes the day bearable or we have a boss we like or once, just once, something actually goes our way.
Work is a real Russian roulette of mostly sh*t and sometime good fortune, and Abbott Elementary, now in its second 22-episode long season – a rarity these days when 10 episodes is seen as generous – captures it all rapturously, comedically perfectly, throwing in some arch social commentary along the way.
What makes this workplace sitcom, set in an ailing public school in Philadelphia where resources are scant, infrastructure is near-derelict and expectations are perennially low, work so well is that it captures the innate humanity of what it is like to love what you do but not always the ones you do it with or the system which seems to actively conspire against you.
The experience of every single teacher in Abbott Elementary rings true, from lead protagonist and relatively new employee Janine (series creator Quinta Brunson) through to veteran educator Barbara Howard (Sheryl Lee Ralph), overly earnest do-gooder and white teacher in a largely Black-staffed school, Jacob Hill (Chris Perfetti), first year newbie and Principal aspirant Gregory Eddie (Tyler James Williams) to wisecracking tough gal with a heart of gold Melissa Schemmenti (Lisa Ann Walter) and yes, even vacuous, TikTok-addict school principal Ava Coleman (Janelle James).
Not so much because much of their audience has any real experience being a teacher with its unique challenges and rewards, but because everyone last person watching knows down to their marrow what it’s like trying to wrangle something good of work situations that rarely match what we hope for.
And good lord, don’t these largely dedicated teachers, and yes, conspiracy theory-embracing overly qualified janitor Mr. Johnson (William Stanford Davis) who becomes a regular cast member this season, do their best to make something good out of what often feels like a war of educational attrition.
Granted, you could probably exempt Ava from their ranks, who has no qualifications for what she does, who lacks aware of things as basic as school opening and closing times and who is more committed to her various social media-dependent entrepreneurial but even she, in her own narcissistic way, is trying to make the best of things, just not, hilariously, with the welfare of her staff or children in mind.
But everyone’s had a boss like that, just like they’ve had an eager-beaver someone like Janine who means well and wants to be the best and do good work but who comes hard up against the chasms of her own inexperience or old hands like Barbara or Melissa who are absolutely dedicated to their kids but have long lost the will (though not completely) to battle a system that seems solely dedicated to grinding them down.
What stands out most of all, quite apart from the surrealistically silly idiosyncratic humour that permeates the whole show, is how real each and every one of the characters is, even if they all exist within the tightly-scripted confines of a 22-minute run time.
In that respect, Abbott Elementary is delightfully old school, sticking closely to a set running time and making that all of the issues in an episode from poor funding to run-ins with angry parents to private enterprise outfits on the prowl knowing as charter schools seeking to add Abbott to their empire (education of the poor kids in a deprived neighbourhood effectively be damned) all neatly tidied up within the usual run time allotted to sitcoms who are broadcast firstly on good old broadcast TV.
Some sitcoms don’t handle these kind of strict parameters all that well, their episodes feeling either rushed-to-conclusion or their subject trivialised by being packaged into 22 all-too-short minutes but somehow Abbott Elementary avoids this, telling its surprisingly emotionally resonant stories in ways that don’t feel comprised by run-time or the ever-present need to tell a joke.
It is, in that respect, a rare breed of intelligent sitcom that manages to be both very funny and incisively thoughtful, that has the time to comment on the poor of publicly-funded schools in the States and the way in which private enterprise steps in but at the expense of those kids who may not fit the business model.
There’s a real love for education and the advantages it brings people permeating through this gloriously charming oddball of a series which is happy to showcase the absurdities of work and life for a well-aimed joke or two while never once patronising the issue in its firing line.
Similarly, its characters are all treated with respect and while they may do some strange and questionable things – largely Mr. Johnson and Ava but the others have their amusingly ill-judged moments too – the “com” always flows from the “sit” and never at the expense of characters who are essentially largely decent people trapped in a Kafka-esque world of underfunding, lack of administrative caring and dog-eat-dog survival.
That respect for the characters but willingness to take massive potshots at the weirdness of their professional lives, mostly brought about by a strange and broken system which they need to wrangle for the welfare of the kids they teach and love, makes Abbott Elementary a joy to watch because it always remembers that at its heart, even when panning for lots of laughs, it’s a story about good people trying to do good things in a bad situation.
Season two doesn’t exactly break the mould but it does build beautifully on the warmhearted goodness of season one, giving the characters more to do and enlarging the premise of a show that brings together the comedic and the heartfelt to a highly entertaining degree all while letting us spend time with people who feel like family, and whom we want to do well, no matter the obstacles placed in their goodhearted, intentioned paths.
SHERYL-LEE RALPH, LISA ANN WALTER, JANELLE JAMES, TYLER JAMES WILLIAMS and QUINTA BRUNSON …