March 24, 2023

ABC’s standout comedy, Abbott Elementary is riding an unstoppable momentum of success. Garnering wins across the board as another awards season comes and goes, Abbott definitely has people talking. But what is the deeper meaning behind creator Quinta Brunson’s mockumentary about a group of resilient teachers in an underfunded Philadelphia public school? Well, according to the writer and star, the mission of this sitcom is to make you laugh.

‘Abbott Elementary’ Scores High on Representation

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The wheels for Abbott started turning in 2020, and Brunson’s goal was to provide a mental respite for viewers, something that doesn’t require “mental gymnastics” to get through. On the Talk Easy podcast, she says that there is “something really beautiful about enjoying something sweet and short.” However, despite her intention to soften the blow of recent years with something family-friendly and downright witty, the series has taken on a life of its own. Its extremely socially conscious and relevant plotlines have been stirring up engaging conversations among viewers. Discourse about education system politics is top of mind, yes, but Abbott has also fanned the flames of discussion about how positive representation enriches both the education and entertainment spheres.

RELATED: ‘Abbott Elementary’ Season 2 Review: Quinta Brunson’s Emmy-Winning Series Is Funnier Than Ever

The ensemble on Abbott is uniquely easy to love. There are so many layers to each personality that unfold within the 22 minutes we get to spend with them. This depth is accomplished by rejecting any stereotypes that could be attached to the group. Creators that successfully work outside these rigid boxes will continue to put together more interesting stories and characters than those who rely on preconceived notions to make their points for them. Recent trends in the characterization of Black women and girls in media confirm the idea that programs like Abbott are satisfying the need to see these communities accurately and positively represented.

The women of color in this series are unequivocally depicted as capable and intelligent leaders. They are not subjected to the violence and nudity that often comes with the territory of being a Black woman onscreen. Even Principal Ava Coleman (Janelle James), who may not always use her position of leadership for the greater good, is experiencing glowing moments of growth. In reference to the “Valentine’s Day” episode, it is such a pleasant surprise that Ava is continuously making strides in the right direction. Her antics are a high point of the show, but it is more than understood that characters that stay stagnant for too long become repetitive and dull. Instead of struggling to keep personalities like Ava relevant as the series goes on, Abbott knows how to use her resoluteness and eccentricity to its advantage.

All of these bright, vibrant women are certainly enjoyable to watch, and this also affects opportunity and income as harmful stereotypes slowly begin to dissipate. The series is delightful, and it’s a pleasure to have something so uplifting to tune into during the week. It also happens to enforce an alternative to the standard of practice for how certain groups are portrayed: “negative imagery of Black women appears twice as often as positive depictions. Images of the ‘welfare queen,’ ‘baby mama,’ and ‘angry Black woman,’ among other images, shame working-class Black women’s struggles and reduce Black women’s complex humanity.” The multifaceted view we are provided for each of these characters allows us to not only understand but appreciate their complexity while still upholding the show’s light and charming tone.

Themes and Values with a Further Reach

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Writer and Producer Brittani Nichols speaks to how these negative images ultimately play a huge part in the growing disinterest in network T.V. She feels as though when she was coming up as a television writer, original content by streaming services was pulling ahead in showcasing diverse groups with a strong story to tell. She describes her experience in the Abbott writer’s room as a space that “welcomed her back.” In terms of her experience as a Black, Queer woman in that environment, Nichols stresses that oftentimes, those contributions are not always visible to the naked eye. Her input involves weaving in themes and values that resonate more with a diverse pool of viewers. Creating this non-identity-based work, as she so aptly phrases it, avoids storytellers and their characters being put into a box. We can all attest to the fact that this individuality creates a buzz-worthy show, and once that happens, people become more invested in all the people involved. By making this point, Nichols sums up so perfectly why these well-rounded stories matter not only to viewers but to a plethora of creators waiting for a platform to be made available to them.

Respect as a Key Ingredient for Engaging Stories

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The mockumentary format of the show really bolsters these concepts. The idea of an omnipresent camera as a truth-teller accomplishes total immersion in all sides of a person. Brunson and her team are not out to create perfect individuals; that would be blatantly uninteresting. In this week’s “Teacher Conference” episode, for example, the way in which Janine and Gregory (played by Brunson and Tyler James Williams) finally have their first romantic encounter is less than ideal. As is often the case with workplace romances, it’s a little messy and if we know anything about these two, it’s that they are not big fans of messy situations. In this instance, capturing all sides of a character is what allows us to love the cast exactly as they are.

This is why it was an integral part of the hiring process to ensure that her staff “respect the world they’re writing about.” She was mindful not to bring anyone on who had a negative, cartoonish, or demeaning view of the lives they were trying to create. Because of that mutual understanding, these writers feel as though they get to “laugh and talk about tougher things and still respect each other’s opinions.” This is why they can so successfully write characters with opposing approaches to their teaching styles and still have them hold each other in the highest regard.

In the Season 1 episode “Gifted Program,” Janine and Gregory experience some friction when they see that some children are being favored over others as a result of the new specialized classes. Initially, Janine, being an alum of a gifted program herself, feels as though these lessons will help engage the kids and create opportunities for advanced learning. When this gets put into practice, she comes to terms with the harsh reality that limited resources means that some kids might get left behind. Jacob (Chris Perfetti), on the other hand, relishes in rewarding academic prowess in his students. Gregory has an inkling all along that this might be the case, and shares with Janine how a gifted program doesn’t always acknowledge all intelligences as equal.

When these three approach Ava with a creative solution, none of the teachers are shamed for their efforts because, at the end of the day, they’re all workshopping different ways to use what little they have to their advantage. The specific prerequisite of respect in the writer’s room is what allows for dynamics like this to come across as genuine as they do. It simply wouldn’t work if the room were filled with people with any sort of negative bias. This storyline is just one of so many examples of how Abbott Elementary uses the backdrop of a school to speak to larger ideas of togetherness and forward progress.

‘Abbott’ is Brunson’s Purpose and Truth

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Brunson utilizes her stage on Abbott to inadvertently speak to the issues that affect her. In the Talk Easy interview, she states that she holds more power as a creator than she would if she were to openly speak about her past experiences, her beliefs, and her principles; especially pertaining to her home city of Philadelphia. There is an unabashed honesty that comes with her ability to create.

The result of this philosophy is a thought-provoking and insightful piece of work that is wrapped in something with the power to make someone feel good. Despite its subtext, Abbott Elementary is, at its core, a tender, loving, and sharp example of a workplace comedy.

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