It’s difficult to explain the institutional infrastructure and the problems surrounding it to an audience that has little to no knowledge about the geo-political pulse of that nation. Add to it, the complexities of the racial identity politics and you have in hand, a full a splainer ready to precede a sitcom.
Perhaps, this is why Abbot Elementary is yet to achieve a cult-like status in a country like ours. As a mass audience, we would rather watch shiny vampires in a blue-green tinted film on Netflix than stream the funny and warm Abbot Elementary on Disney+ Hotstar. No hate for the film; it actually isn’t that bad and I am considering going down the road of the other films.
I digress, but ABC’s Abbot Elementary does to teaching for a public-school educator what paper-selling did to salespeople after the success of the Office on NBC. That’s a good motivation for most clueless Indian audiences to latch on. For the other, slightly initiated, a camera crew follows the staff at a public school in Philadelphia- Abbot Elementary- and focuses on the lives of the teachers and what they make of the scarce resources. Often with frugal means and bare minimum motivation, these teachers lead the 13-episode series.
Quinta Brunson doubles as the creator and stars as the second-grade teacher Janine Teagues; a warm and a sociotropic member of the staff at Abbot. Constantly seeking approval from the students as well as the staff and administration, Janine, is on the spectrum between Michael Scott and Leslie Knope. She gives total main character energy when everyone around her can’t seem to handle her enthusiasm. Her rapper boyfriend Tariq (Zack Fox) appears in the show as a disclaimer for all those who are left mothering their partner in a relationship. There’s always someone better in the next aisle, in this case, the new sub (and a total hottie) Gregory (Tyler James Williams). Some would say the trio gives Pam-Roy-Jim energy but I want to give these three a space to shine, rather than constantly dick-measuring from a wildly popular sitcom with 9 seasons.
The only person who has a more iconic personality than Gregory (he only likes specific food, hates pizza, and doesn’t understand student art or visual aesthetics) is principal Ava (Janelle James). Perhaps, one of the critical skills required to be an institutional administrator is to stand out from the crowd and blend as little as possible. While Gregory loses out of the principal job to Ava, it is worth admiring how stunted both are in their individual light with students. Something about the bleak future of the education system?
There are dependable members of the staff too. In old hires Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph) and Melissa (Lisa Ann Walter), you see your old school teachers who stood for trust in an education system that is far from rewarding both the teachers and the students despite doing it all. In some ways, watching scenes and arcs with both Barbara and Melissa made me feel a tad bit mellow towards some of the kindest teachers we had in school, who despite all odds made the system work for the students. William Stanford Davis as the janitor has the best line in the series “this is trash”, a reaction gif I need for every rubbish correspondence with people daily. The only visibly white member of the staff Jacob (Chris Perfetti) is someone I’d love to see through the next few seasons, to observe how his arc rounds up. Is he going to be as timid as he is in the first season or will he change in the company of his boyfriend? (Side note: Ava commenting “black people can be annoying” was legitimately the funniest line of the series.)
While every episode is a micro plot in progressing through the school year and the individual lives of these professionals at a workspace, Abbot Elementary humanizes the struggles of public school teachers and in its doing so, makes something so seemingly simple tug at the heartstrings while making it overtly funny. You want to feel for the staff and their situations but at the same time you see them make the best of what they have and at the end of the day, our best efforts are all that matters. A part of this pagan is what social media content churning thrives on- inspiration porn- and to ridicule it with a well-intended heart is where Abbot Elementary truly shines.
One can’t comment on the series without noting the black culture foregrounding in the form of the students who attend the school as well as the majority of the staff. Most of them are from black and brown communities and come from service-class families. There are pertinent conversations and reminders around what is a need and its distinction from a deserving ask that the creator, as well as the team, puts in their message with Abbot Elementary. A little respect and a whole lot of laughs can make the world turn around. Ask the staff at Abbot Elementary and they’ll tell you this without being the annoying preachy kind. More, please.
The series is available for streaming on Disney+ Hotstar in India.
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