Since its premiere in December, the ABC sitcom “Abbott Elementary” has seen its viewership skyrocket as the comedy set in a Philadelphia public elementary school has become a smash hit in the new season. The brainchild of creator/actress/producer Quinta Brunson, who stars as an overly serious teacher named Janine Teagues, can attribute its success to strong storytelling and a cast of savvy veterans like Sheryl Lee Ralph, Tyler James Williams and Lisa Ann Walter. Looking deeper, however, “Abbott Elementary” also marks an important cultural moment in screen representation and why it matters.
Growing up in New York in the 1980s, I didn’t have a single black elementary or middle school teacher. I was a 15-year-old junior at Brooklyn Technical High School when I met my first black teacher. Kudos to Mr. Brereton for Building Construction! After Mr. Brereton, I should have waited until I was a freshman at Howard University to be taught by a black man again. Having education and school boards administered by someone who looks like you is too rare for black elementary school students. Stanford Graduate School of Education estimates that only 2% of American teachers are black men.
But “Abbott Elementary” highlights actor Tyler James Williams, who is black, as a relatively new substitute teacher. Of course, the show’s heartbeat is star Quinta Brunson, but its inclusion of the Williams character is brilliant. It’s a feature of the kind of cultural fluidity needed to draw audiences into a context that resonates. I’m a long way from grade school, and seeing Williams’ character week after week reflects an academic reality I wish I had grown up.
Television shows set in schools are not uncharted territory. From “Welcome Back, Kotter” in the 70s to “Saved by the Bell” in the 80s and 90s to the more recent “Glee”, college students’ growing pains have been fertile ground for television. These shows and most programs focus on high school students and their stories. “Abbott Elementary” turns this familiar script on its head by setting the show in an elementary school environment, and of course, and making the teachers the stars of the show. Sure, the cute kids are in the background, but the focus is squarely on the educators and how they navigate bureaucracy and the pressures of work.
Schools and school boards have become battlegrounds. Conservatives have channeled their unfounded hysteria over critical race theory and mask mandates into a new culture war. The pushback against the most minimal diversity initiatives after the murder of George Floyd has become the source of grievances from white parents aimed at schools. Under the guise of freedom and parental rights, teachers are besieged simply for doing their job. The mainstream media misrepresents this as the actions of concerned parents.
A more critical examination reveals that the concerns of black and brown parents are left out of the discourse. Articles and think pieces that refer to “parents” often simply use shorthand to describe the situation of white parents. “Abbott Elementary” is not a political show, but by showing the children of black and brown parents uninvolved in the culture wars, Brunson and his team are performing a political act. Some communities want the best education for their children, and they are rarely seen or heard from. “Abbott Elementary” centers their stories rather than those fighting justice and safety.
Although Abbott Elementary is a city public school, the show doesn’t get caught up in conventional thinking of what a “city school” is or reduce the setting to a stereotype of the liberal imagination. downtown. Abbot and Philadelphia are depicted as a complex urban environment. Although they face challenges, the staff are more than capable and willing to meet them. Just as the ratings are booming, so is the fictional school – with a little guts and imagination. The show deftly exploits the issues that inevitably arise when confronted with the ongoing neoliberal project that cuts funding for education at the expense of everything else.
Abbott Elementary, taking the culture of education seriously, operates silently – almost invisibly. Its power lies in knowing the world it inhabits so authentically that it can shape perceptions in ways that are both familiar and fresh. When you empower creators like Quinta Brunson, you open your door to a larger, more dynamic narrative. “Abbott Elementary” is just getting started, but it’s already succeeding on many levels. As the laughs are on full display each week, the meaning of the show continues to unfold and takes viewers on a much more meaningful journey.