Abbott Elementary is a new mockumentary sitcom created, starring, and executive produced by comic Quinta Brunson. Taking place in a poorly-funded public school in Philadelphia, the comedy is made up of young teachers bursting with innovative teaching ideas and veteran teachers shaking their heads at their naïvete. It has gained rave reviews from critics and is quickly becoming ABC’s highest rated show. So what exactly makes Abbott Elementary work? Well, from breaking the fourth wall to a slow-burning love interest, our experts have a few ideas.
1. Strategic Casting
With mockumentary-type shows, you can’t have a cast filled with major celebrities because it will counteract the effect of the filmmaking style. Nobody is going to believe that there’s a random school in Philadelphia where Kristen Wiig, Tiffany Haddish, and the Rock teach during their off time. This can be a difficult hurdle though because new shows often need stars to get it picked up by a network or draw in an audience. What Abbott Elementary does instead is brilliant. The show cast actors like Lisa Ann Walter (Chessy in The Parent Trap) and Tyler James Williams (Chris in Everybody Hates Chris) who are known, but not overexposed. We as an audience are excited to see familiar faces, but their offscreen identities don’t overshadow their onscreen characters. This is the same reason why having Rob Lowe play Chris Trager in Parks and Rec worked so well. Amy Poehler was a big name to have on the show, so she needed to be surrounded by relatively unknown actors. Rob didn’t disturb this balance because it had been years since he had acted, so he was able to draw in an older audience without making the mockumentary less believable.
2. Relatable Coworkers Who Cause Conflict
Whatever the work setting is, there are always going to be people who are great at their jobs and people who make you wonder how they’re still employed. Abbott Elementary does a great job of writing a myriad of these types of characters in ways that make them butt heads with each other in a relatable and interesting way. The principal who seems completely incompetent is the type of boss many of us have experienced in our own lives. There are two veteran teachers who know what they’re doing, but one is super conservative and the other is a stereotypical Philly townie who knows where to get illegal goods and who to call when a hit needs to be taken out. There are three newbies- one who is always determined to improve things, one who is rigid and by the book, and another who can’t gain control of a classroom to save his life. Having not just the duality of new vs. experienced teachers, but also opposing teaching styles among the different groups creates hilarious conflict. While these tropes have been seen in many shows before, they haven’t been seen quite like this, so the familiarity is there, but so is the originality that keeps it feeling fresh.
3. Jim Halpert Looks
For those who have seen The Office, Jim’s side-eye to the camera is a story-telling staple. Abbott Elementary carries on that tradition with each of its teachers sharing a look with the camera whenever something ridiculous happens. This little addition of breaking the fourth wall is so important because it really engages and immerses the viewers in the thoughts and feelings of the scenes. You feel like you’re bonding with a coworker, which in turn creates a comradery that keeps you watching it.
4. Subtle Love Interest
There is a budding relationship between Janine and Gregory that is clearly going to take a long time to come to fruition. Much like Pam in The Office, Janine is in a long-term relationship with a guy who is just the worst, and Gregory is stuck pining for her, although in a much subtler way than Jim. Audiences are already rooting for them to get together, but there is still a lot of character growth that needs to occur before that happens. In the meantime, it’s fun to watch Gregory start to open up to his coworkers and students.
5. Filling a Gap
Throughout the pandemic, people have been rewatching or finally discovering mockumentary sitcoms like Parks and Rec, The Office, and Modern Family. It’s obvious that there is still massive love for that style of show. Unfortunately, most of them are currently off the air and one can only watch reruns for so long. What We Do in the Shadows has become a cult hit on Hulu, but there hasn’t really been a mainstream program that’s filled the gap. That is, not until Abbott Elementary entered the scene. It brings with it the comfort of nostalgia, reminding us of our favorite shows from the past decade, but creating its own unique path that keeps things interesting. It’s funny, heartwarming, ridiculous, and exactly what we need right now.
In order for it to be a lasting success, I believe the show will need to put a greater emphasis on world-building. It’s only been a few episodes, so I believe they will certainly get to this. However, the greatest part about mockumentary sitcoms is the recurring supporting characters who show up off and on throughout the series. Parks and Rec did this with the townspeople, The Office did this with the surrounding local businesses, and I believe Abbott Elementary can do this with things like rival schools, parents, the school board, and so on. I’m excited to see where the show will go and what funny things the characters will say next.