Abbott Elementary: Dealing with Real-Life Issues Through Comedy

Justin takes a look at how Abbott Elementary deals with the ongoing issues of the American education system through hilarious comedy.

Warning! Spoilers through Episode 5 of Abbott Elementary!

Abbott Elementary follows teachers at a school in Philadelphia as they tackle teaching, students, funding issues, and workplace problems. Created and starring Quinta Brunson, this show returns to the cable sitcom format while dealing with important topics in a lighthearted way. Filmed in a mockumentary style, Abbott Elementary follows second-grade teacher Jeanine Teagues (Brunson) and her coworkers as they navigate the modern field of education. Major plot points in the show have covered school funding, socioeconomic status, race, workplace culture, historical accuracy, child development, and more.

The genius of Abbott Elementary is in the presentation of these important issues. Where many shows would present a pointed, dramatic plot surrounding the topics, Brunson and her writing team encapsulate these issues in a comedic storyline. In the fifth episode, “Student Transfer”, Jeanine has to deal with a troublemaking new student, Courtney (Lela Hoffmeister). Courtney’s antics in the classroom are disruptive to the other students and undermines Jeanine’s authority in her class. Jeanine needs to find a solution that allows her to not only get her classroom back under control, but provide Courtney what she needs as a student as well.

While the storyline could be about getting Courtney back in line or a plot about difficulty in her home life, Abbott Elementary takes a refreshing look. Courtney wasn’t a troublemaker because she hated school or as a response to not understanding her studies; Courtney, in fact, is a brilliant student, and was performing well above her grade. The solution was not to punish Courtney, but to support her and challenge her. Courtney was bored and under-stimulated in second grade, so they decided the best plan was to move her up to third grade. By providing her a chance to academically advance and enrich her mind, Courtney will be able to flourish.

Courtney (Lela Hoffmeister) showing off her “mature” vocabulary / Abbott Elementary, ABC

Hoffmeister’s stellar performance helped show that Courtney wasn’t just a regular troublemaker. She caused disruptions, but was also helping students with their math and English assignments. She corrected her teachers when they made a mistake, and was mature, if not snarky, in her interactions with adults. Courtney was eloquent and well-spoken, and her vocabulary was impressive. Luckily Jeanine was able to identify these traits in Courtney and the best path forward.

Only a few episodes into its first season, Abbott Elementary has consistently portrayed real-life topics in a thoughtful and humorous way. Other storylines in this season have been just as well crafted. In episode four, “New Tech”, veteran kindergarten teacher Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph) was struggling with new technology mandated by the school district. Jeanine insistently tried to help Barbara, but Barbara refused and ended up putting false information into the system. Barbara’s mistakes ended up highlighting the complications with this overly analytical program. This episode’s storyline around ageism was presented in a way that was likely relevant to many viewers who find themselves struggling with technology and changing times.

Recent debates around television and movies are often surrounding the worth of the story. Many argue that if a television show is not handling deep, important issues, it is not something worth viewing. While the merits of that argument are certainly questionable, Brunson and her team’s work on Abbott Elementary challenges that notion. This show is a lot of fun and very funny! But the storylines are real-life; these are issues that teachers and students are facing every day. Those two facets of this show do not need to be opposed. Important topics do not always need to be framed in high drama and heart-wrenching plots. It is okay to sit down and laugh at a mockumentary. It does not make this show any less important or significant.

If you haven’t checked out Abbott Elementary yet, be sure to add it to your watchlist!

New episodes of Abbott Elementary are currently airing in the United States on Tuesdays on ABC. Episodes can be streamed on Hulu the following day. For more from Quinta Brunson, check out her new memoir of essays, She Memes Well, published by Dey Street Books.

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