It’s easy to root “Abbott Elementary”.
In its first season, Quinta Brunson’s series has established itself as a half-hour full of liveliness and sweetness and as a sign of life for a network comedy. Rooted both in the office comedy genre that is as old as the medium (with the office, in this case, being a public school in Philadelphia) and in the 21st century tradition of comedy, Abbott was a sharp and powerful argument for traditional forms. Bronson’s winning of an Emmy for writing the pilot came as a welcome celebration of a new talent, rather than a surprise.
The first two episodes of the series’ second season continue its strong trajectory. The school made windfall gains the previous season, and the decision of how to spend it is pending on proceedings. This is a neat way to spread both halves of the emotional Abbott equation: the program’s teachers know that they are underfunded and that the reward will expire very quickly, yet they continue with a smile, because what’s the alternative? The scene in which teachers visit a resource-rich charter school before returning home to a sloppy den plays superbly, with hidden envy barely rebounding from face to face.
At the center of the show, it’s Janine Bronson’s character who’s holding things together, if not just barely. In the season premiere, Bronson writes herself a scene of emotional breakdown due to the financial pressures of Janine who is among the richest acting work she has had on the series to date. The set is also good; Early on, Lisa Ann Walter’s character felt like a delivery mechanism for one joke about a shadyly immoral person, but Walter’s performance, and her easily bruised character, are headed in interesting new directions. Janelle James continues to search for new ways to portray narcissism and incompetence, treating scholarship disbursement as an episode of “Shark Tank.” Tyler James Williams and newly Emmy-award-winning Sheryl Lee Ralph share the show’s most intriguing chemistry as Gregory and Barbara, with his perpetual boredom and refinement bumping into each other.
The set is so powerful, in fact, that it can sometimes cover moments when this network sitcom might feel a little, well, like a network sitcom. Various plot elements are neatly shed over the summer, rebooting Janine and Gregory’s off-screen personal lives in a way that seems surprising and random. The internal logic of a running joke in the season’s second episode, about Barbara confusing the names of black and white actors, felt confusing to me, but it’s the kind that one ignores and forgives when the show lasts a week, a week-out. (Abbott’s second season will have 22 episodes, up from 13 episodes in season one.) James’ performance distracted me from the ways an ABC sitcom that serves up “Shark Tank,” at least, feels like a tie A cliched neck, like when the family in “Black-ish” went to Walt Disney World as a way to promote the theme parks of ABC’s parent company. And while the show does find ways to take advantage of its simulators (mostly in James’ performance, and her penchant for trying to catch the camera lens), it’s unclear why this story is told in this style, other than that it’s the story of the style that’s popular now. The Office spent its final season blasting the documentary’s story, and examining why the cast members had been filming for so long seemed like the last word on this machine and what it could do.
This seems especially true because the stories told are so lively that they don’t require the characters to explain themselves to the camera. The panicked moment of a frantic Jenin (Bronson Show scene) comes into conversation with her colleagues; The device falls away, and we see the community outside the confession chamber. The best thing I can say about the simulated mechanism of characters recounting their thoughts and feelings in the familiar “Office” / “Modern Family” fashion is that it works, intentional or not, like a Trojan horse. Viewers expect a sitcom that moves in a relaxed and familiar way to have a relaxed and familiar subject matter and end up seeing characters who have to put in a real effort to pay the bills, or wonder how they can continue to educate children with the available resources.
But they keep screaming, with the sitcom’s weekly tunes finally making up a satisfying match to the daily rhythms of a school day. Abbott personalities have the winning tenacity of people who work because they are driven by purpose, and the intelligence of people who try to achieve the best things. They make the series feel fresh, lively and lively to counterbalance the sadness of being part of a profession, urban educator, that is underresourced and underreported. Abbott does justice to the teachers at her center, a testament to Bronson’s ability to set familiar shapes for worthy and pleasurable goals. As a good student, the series colors clearly within the lines.
The second season of “Abbott Elementary” premieres Wednesday, September 21 at 9 p.m. ET.