‘Abbott Elementary’ is proof that wholesome television can still be funny

Evan Ross Katz is In The Know’s pop culture contributor. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram for more.

“Everybody thinks they have the best cast,” says Abbott Elementary star Chris Perfetti. “They don’t. I, in fact, do. Unequivocally. I’m equally very happy to be working on something that is unabashedly about Black presence, and that puts on a pedestal the immense contribution educators can have in this country. I was a sh** student, and it took a small army of them to knock some sense into me — a few of ‘em even changed my life — so this feels like some weird kind of karma thingy.”

Abbott Elementary has always been a “when” and not an “if.” Ever since her first viral videos rocketed her to internet fame in 2014, series creator and star Quinta Brunson has been on a journey to greatness. The humor was always there. (“If you could time travel to any decade, what would it be?” one man asks in one of her early viral successes, “What It’s Like Being The Only Black Friend.” 1950, one woman responds. 1920, adds another. 1890, the man suggests. “Um, the future,” Brunson deadpans. “Limited options for me in the past.”) The audience was there too, with her videos racking up millions of views. But as the viral video format began to collapse alongside the rise of TikTok and Instagram Reels, Brunson turned her attention elsewhere. She broke out on the first season of HBO’s A Black Lady Sketch Show. In one sketch, “Rome and Julissa,” Brunson played love interests with Tyler James Williams, who would go on to appear with her in Abbott Elementary. Oh yes, about that show. 

The deal was first announced in September, 2020, a “put pilot commitment,” for ABC meaning a commitment to air the series, or in layperson’s terms, a vote of confidence. A little over a year later, in December 2021, the show finally premiered. The reviews were overwhelmingly positive. “A terrifically smart workplace comedy.” “Should be everyone’s new comedic obsession.” “A showcase for wildly talented and funny women.” Ratings, too, continue to build a case for this being the breakout show of the season. But with a premise that’s hardly original and a style that’s been done before (see: The Office, Parks & Rec), what is it about this sitcom that feels so overwhelmingly fresh?

That answer might be quite simple. “Abbott is proof that wholesome television can be entertaining and doesn’t have to be cheesy or melodramatic to hold our attention,” wrote film critic and entertainment writer Beandrea July in a viral tweet, citing the show’s well-written emotional stakes. It’s true; Abbott Elementary manages to be sweet without being overly saccharine, refreshing without trying to reinvent the wheel and a respite in a TV landscape rife with anxiety-inducing fare (see: Euphoria). All that, and the show is funny — ridiculously funny. “What is this, an iPhone 9?” Principal Ava asks Brunson’s Janine after she hands her her phone. “It’s like a Walkman. I don’t know nothing about this. That’s before my time.” She then, in what is the show’s signature fashion at this point, turns to the camera with an expression, “Did I lie?”

“With subject matter like this, I think it’s important for the audience to feel like they’re in on an inside joke with our show,” Brunson told the Washington Post. “If I say to you right now, ‘No soup for you,’ that only means something to you because you’ve seen Seinfeld, too. And if you haven’t seen Seinfeld, then that means diddly squat to you. To me, the best jokes are inside. They can only live in the world and the soul of that show.”

The wholesome part comes from the reality that the show’s premise — an underfunded inner-city public school — as well as some of its plot points. For instance, whether or not the school should have a gifted program isn’t shied away from, but rather presented in a lighthearted manner to convey that although the situation might be laden with strife, that provides opportunities to mine comedy rather than the more expected melodrama. You can cry over spilled milk, but Abbott Elementary would rather you grab a straw and have a competition to see who can lap it up off the floor faster.

And it seems Abbott Elementary might be part of a new era of wholesome entertainment that doesn’t sacrifice depth for width. NBC’s American Auto and Grand Crew, CBS’s Ghosts and ABC’s Wonder Years revival are all examples of television that casts a wide net without sacrificing specificity. In fact, according to Perfetti, it’s the specificity with which Quinta approaches their show that is, in turn, the key to its universality. “Everybody’s got potent memories and points of reference for that time in their life: the teachers we had, the crap we ate, the joy and heartbreak of those days… we were all there. And I think there’s a bravery in her writing that says ‘If you don’t get it, all good, maybe you’ll get the next one.’ I think that kind of confidence people are attracted to.”

Wholesome entertainment might be on the up and up, but it’s been few and far between over the last decade, where adult themes have become the television du jour. Arthur, for instance, the longest-running animated children’s series in history, aired its final episode at the end of February. In his essay for The Atlantic reflecting on the series, writer Aaron Edwards noted how the show was “easily digestible but rarely flat caricatures.” And though Abbott Elementary is perhaps aimed at a more adult audience than Arthur, the two share many parallels. Abbott, like Arthur, has something to say about the world, but it’s presented without heavy-handedness or a sense of moral superiority. Both shows also showcase a worldview that’s not at all jaded.

Outside in the rain, Abbott fan-favorite Gregory tells Janine about his father, who wishes Gregory was in the marines like he was. “Does teaching make you happy?” she asks him. “It could,” he responds, with a look that indicates he’s having the realization as he says it. “Does Tariq make you happy?” he asks her in response, calling out Janine’s questioning of her romantic life. She looks around unsure as Tariq pulls up and she’s saved by the boyfriend… for now. Moments like this aren’t funny. And it’s in these moments that the show reveals a tenderness that many of its other comparables lacked.

Does this mean television is going soft in some kind of rebuke toward the increasingly adult-oriented landscape? Hardly. Instead, it seems to be pointing to the notion that audience’s contain multitudes and can be in the mood to watch Maddy bang Cassie’s head into a wall on Euphoria one minute and watch Janine console Ava over her sick grandmother on Abbott Elementary the next. As Gia Gunn once famously stated: “There’s room for everybody.”

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