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How ‘Abbott Elementary’ Revived the Network Sitcom

In an era defined by prestige TV comedies, the ABC breakout hit is proud to be part of a storied broadcast tradition

ABC/Ringer illustration

The sitcom won’t die. For more than 75 years, the genre has been a fallout bunker in culture’s nuclear wasteland, because if there’s anything universal in this world, it’s situational high jinks. Despite this resilience, TV critics and executives have obsessed over the demise of sitcoms for years. In 1999, Entertainment Weekly proclaimed “The Death of the Sitcom” was upon us. Fifteen years later, Grantland writer (and Ringer contributor) Andy Greenwald gave a similar eulogy; he was followed a few years later by Vulture. Most recently Time “pour[ed] one out” for the form. These types of proclamations happen so regularly they might as well be a rite of passage. Typically, the impending doom is inspired by falling ratings, a season of quickly canceled shows, or fear that there will never be another zeitgeisty phenomenon like Friends or The Office until there is one, because TV is pop culture’s greatest reincarnation cycle.

Quinta Brunson—the creator, star, and executive producer of the ABC breakout hit Abbott Elementary—seems immune to this existential dread. “I’m such a big fan of network comedy sitcoms,” she admits. “Even the bad ones on different networks. I still enjoy watching the 22-minute, commercial-break layout, because there’s something so easy about it to me.” That’s not always the case for her with shows that play with the format: “Whereas Atlanta,” she says, referencing Donald Glover’s experimental, critically lauded FX series, “sometimes I’m afraid I’m going to have a panic attack.”

As prestige TV captivated a new generation of viewers in the past two decades, Brunson cherished what many perceived as a dying American art form. Then, she created her own. Abbott follows the story of five teachers and their principal making do in an underfunded West Philadelphia elementary school. The 30-minute mockumentary is partially gleaned from Brunson’s life—her mom taught kindergarten and the show is named after her middle school teacher. In a little over a month, Abbott became ABC’s first comedy premiere to quadruple in ratings and garnered 7.1 million total viewers, according to the broadcast company. “We gave [network comedies] up to the older people,” Brunson continues. “And to be fair, about a decade ago, millennials were pushed away from that space, which is why everybody wound up in streaming and cable.”

According to the show’s co-showrunner and executive producer, Justin Halpern, Brunson’s desire to make a “great network television show” was part of Abbott’s initial appeal to him and his creative partner Patrick Schumacker. A decade-plus of prestige TV comedy—Insecure, Orange Is the New Black, BoJack Horseman, Master of None, Atlanta—inspired an entire generation of creatives to follow the money to streamers and cable. “She wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I got forced into this,’” Halpern says. “We’ve had a lot of people we’ve developed with or who want to develop or pitch us something and be like, ‘Oh, this is a show I really want to do for cable [or] streaming, but I can’t so I’m going to take it out as a network show.’ And that never works. It’s like you’re dressing up something to be something it’s not.”

The seeds of Abbott were planted in 2018. Halpern and Schumacker, the duo behind HBO Max’s Harley Quinn, were overseeing a CW pilot about space cops and aliens when they cast Brunson in one of the roles. Unbeknownst to Halpern and Schumacker, the world had already fallen in love with Brunson. Her viral memes and work at BuzzFeed—“The Girl Who’s Never Been on a Nice Date,” “That Ass Is Fat,” “The Milly Rock”—had made Brunson a social media star. “We always joke about how when we cast her, we were like, ‘Look at this person we discovered,’” Halpern says. “And then everybody under 30 was like, ‘Are you fucking stupid? We know who that is.’”

While the CW show didn’t succeed, the duo was interested in whether Brunson had any ideas for her own show. “When she came to us with the idea for Abbott, her real mother was a teacher in the Philadelphia school system for 40 years,” Schumacker explains. “She was like, ‘I’d love to do a show around that character and you guys are doing Harley Quinn. I want to do it as an animated show, but maybe still like a mockumentary style, but animated.’” A year later, Schumacker and Brunson ran into each other on the Warner Brothers lot and settled on pitching Abbott as a live-action series.

But instead of being confined by the borders of network comedies, Brunson and her team decided to let Abbott exploit every aspect of the form and its history. The main cast is filled with familiar faces from sitcoms of yore like Tyler James Williams of Everybody Hates Chris and Sheryl Lee Ralph of Moesha, but newcomer Janelle James has become the show’s breakout star with her portrayal of principal Ava Coleman. Despite its roots as a broad comedy, the show’s most successful bits lean into the hyper-specificity of Philadelphia life. One cold open revolves around how attractive 73-year-old Philadelphia Action News anchor Jim Gardner is (in fairness, Gardner is very attractive), while another features Brunson’s character, Janine, using Philly slang like “Boul” and “Ard” in a lesson about sight words. Most directly, Abbott refuses to hide behind the shadows of TV mockumentary forefathers like The Office and Parks and Recreation.

“Quinta’s a superfan of The Office,” Randall Einhorn says with a smile. Einhorn brought Dunder Mifflin and Pawnee to life for years behind the director’s chair and helmed six episodes of Abbott when the show was in need of a visual signature. “She’s like, ‘I’m not going to lie. I’ve watched everything you did on The Office. I like a lot of that, but this is a different thing. Let’s talk about how it’s different.’” For Abbott, Brunson wanted to land between The Office’s “super dry” atmosphere and Parks and Rec’s “cartoony” bounce. Ultimately, Brunson and Einhorn settled on “warmth,” the kind that’s specific to West Philly and the children who call it home.

What ultimately attracted Einhorn to Abbott was something more basic. For years, the director read through piles of mockumentary scripts. The apathy in his voice is palpable as he describes the number. “It just felt like it was about something,” Einhorn says of Abbott. “I mean, The Office is about economic troubles and people struggling, but this is about kids. So to me, the stakes are so much higher. I mean everybody’s livelihood is important, but every day, people send their kids to school and they trust that those people are doing the right thing with their kids. And the people who are doing the right thing with those kids, they’re heroes.”

Yet Abbott goes out of its way to highlight the mundanity in the inspirational. Teaching children in underfunded schools might be more life affirming than selling paper or the intricacies of local government, but that doesn’t make it immune to typical workplace drudgery. “They’re not shot in this like heroic light, in low angles, superhero poses,” Schumacker adds. “It is the everyday grind and that Sisyphean task of rolling that boulder up the hill knowing that tomorrow you’re going to have to do that all over again and you’re going to be paid shit for it. And the only compensation you get is knowing that maybe these kids are going to make it to college. Maybe these kids are going to make something of themselves and you will have something to do with that. That is the reward.”

Brunson is blunt that while Abbott is fundamentally about something important, that couldn’t be its only selling point. For a network comedy to break through in 2022, it needed to pack the 22-minute running time with as many jokes as possible. A teacher delivering a punch line about the school having “more turnovers than a bakery” would go farther than your typical tearjerker moment. “It’s not a PSA show,” Brunson says. “I had a big thing in the [writers’] room where I was like, ‘We really need to be funny first. I don’t care about the rest of this shit, really. We got representation covered, we don’t need to do that. We need to be funny and we need to show that in this space, you can still be funny.’”

Her honesty even extends to the racial makeup of the cast. Abbott harkens back to the ’90s, when comedies with primarily Black casts seemed more prevalent (e.g. Martin, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Moesha, Living Single) and their reason for existing was rarely explained or defended. At one point, Brunson catches herself stuck between delivering the uncut candor of a lifelong TV fan and tempering that with the political correctness of the successful showrunner she’s grown into. “The world of a West Philadelphia school is not a world that is struggling for Black people. Black people are just there and that is the world,” she says. “I just watched a show recently where I’m just seeing them plug in these people of color into the space. If we’re not naturally there, I’m not really asking for you to plug random Black people into your show so that you feel like you filled your quota.”

“Even when I was growing up in my schools and when I look at the layout of some schools now, and it’s a reason why this is the case on Abbott currently. There weren’t that many Hispanic teachers or Asian teachers,” Brunson continues. “So I didn’t force them into the first season to appeal to the diversity standards. We will find ways to do that, but I want it to be true to the world that is there.”

That truth even extended to the child actors on set. A majority of the kids weren’t trained actors and had never delivered lines on camera. The Abbott team wanted the unchecked chaos of kids, which was quickly compounded by the reality that most of the children hadn’t set foot in a school since the beginning of the pandemic and there were no real teachers around to quell their excitement. That is until Sheryl Lee Ralph walked on set the day of the pilot. “The kids are going crazy because they’re, ‘Now we’re at school. I haven’t seen anybody in ages,’” Einhorn says. Naturally, children don’t know or care what assistant directors are and thus ignored their pleas for quiet on set. “Sheryl Lee Ralph comes in, she goes, ‘Good morning. I am your teacher. What do you do when I ask you to be quiet?’ And the kids are, ‘We be quiet,’” Einhorn continues. “She goes, ‘That’s right. Be quiet. OK, should we shoot the scene?’ She just dominated. She teachered them. And it’s really, really fun to see all the kids treat the teachers like teachers. I mean they know they’re acting.”

For the most part, Abbott has connected with viewers and more importantly, teachers. As dystopian a setup as the fictional teachers crowdfunding school supplies on TikTok or fixing broken fixtures in hallways seem, it’s also reality. Maurice Watkins, a Maryland music teacher, told The New York Times that after the premiere of the show, “Every teacher at school was talking about it. Some teachers I know can’t even watch it.” Schumacker recalls a similar response from teachers when they were testing the pilot. Throughout the process of Abbott, the team researched and interviewed educators and school boards to land on a believable level of authenticity. “All the way back with testing the pilot, we had so many teachers that were watching that test pilot and to a person they were like, ‘This is scarily real,’” he says. “‘It’s both sad and makes me laugh. It’s like PTSD, but it’s also funny.’”

Even when teachers don’t connect with the show, Brunson takes it in stride. In January, a white teacher went viral on TikTok for criticizing the unrealistic sitcom mechanics of the show. “The amount of time that teachers have to talk to each other during the day is wildly overplayed,” she said. “I literally go days at work where I don’t see another adult.” Brunson wasn’t surprised by the vitriol and backlash the teacher received in response. A friend and educator sent her the TikTok beforehand and if Brunson knows anything it’s the life cycle of memes. “I thought [about] the optics of that when I saw two weeks ago, I was like, ‘This could go bad for her.’ Because the optics of it were all wrong,” she says. “White girl, that haircut, pointing to a picture of predominantly Black teachers. So I mean, I hope that girl’s OK somewhere because [they] dragged her to hell.”

As grateful as Brunson is for Abbott’s success, the size and sudden nature of it appears overwhelming. She’s appeared in plenty of TV shows before—A Black Lady Sketch Show, Big Mouth, iZombie—but very few moments can compare to it being your face and name anchoring something seen by millions every week. So for now, a pioneer of the social media age is beginning the process of stepping away. “I just have decided to pull back. It just is a lot,” Brunson says. “I’ve done other things, but nothing like this.”

Sitcoms never died, but it’s understandable when we stop believing in them. For a fleeting moment, even Brunson takes them for granted. “I wanted to create a show for people to enjoy and for everyone to enjoy,” Brunson begins. Abbott wasn’t supposed to happen this fast, because sitcoms rarely do. But history is meant to be broken, even if Brunson wasn’t expecting it. “To almost see it happen in real time was shocking, like, ‘Holy shit,’” she concludes. “Especially with the sitcom, they usually have slow buildups, you know?”