The success of Quinta Brunson’s workplace mockumentary series, Abbott Elementary, seems almost intangible. David Marchese at The New York Times believed, in his recent spotlight on Brunson, that “America was ready for Abbott Elementary,” but despite that nicely phrased headline he still couldn’t quite pinpoint the source of the show’s popularity.
In fact, he asked her why she thought the show was such a success, being a network comedy on ABC. A loaded question seeing that there’s a perceived disdain for being uber uncool for not being on a streaming service. “The hippest, coolest thing isn’t always for everyone, and that’s OK.” Brunson replied as she built her defense, “Network TV is inherently made for the people. ‘Abbott’ is in this middle space between the two.”
Then she added, with swagger, “The reason for that is that on network TV, for a while, there wasn’t someone like me.”
But Brunson isn’t actively being defensive; this is her time, and she’s written a funny comedy with heart about the struggles of an under-funded school in the Philadelphia public school system. It has been a breakout hit on ABC, averaging nearly four million nightly viewers per episode since premiering in December.
Vulture recognized the zeitgeist and climbed on board, noting that this is the “perfect time” for the show. “But what Abbott Elementary does best of all, and at a time when it’s especially vital, is show how passionate many teachers are despite all the struggles and grief that go along with their chosen profession.”
Despite the odds stacked against them, the teachers are determined to help their students succeed in life, and though these dedicated public servants may be outnumbered and underfunded, they love what they do — even if they don’t love the school district’s less-than-stellar attitude toward educating children.
But there’s a chime here, echoed throughout the western world starting with the tragedy of under-funded inner city schools and finishing with the dashing of children’s hopes and dreams for their future. Armed with Brunson’s wit, a family audience is only too happy to welcome these societal problems into their homes riding on this undercurrent of humor.
Brunson, who is the show’s creator and showrunner, as well as the star, says she conceived of the mockumentary with her mother in mind. The fictional Abbott Elementary is exactly the type of school Brunson’s mother taught in for 40 years.
NPR’s Terry Gross asked her to elaborated on her backstory. “Despite it getting harder, despite teachers not having all the support they need, despite kids growing even more unruly than they’ve been in recent time… she still loved the job,” Brunson says of her mother. “The beauty is someone being so resilient for a job that is so underpaid and so under appreciated because it makes them feel fulfilled.”
But another inspiration for the show was the real Ms. Abbott who taught Brunson when the time came to switch schools. “Brunson’s 6th grade teacher, Ms. Abbott, helped with the transition. Decades later, Brunson decided to name her series after Ms. Abbott.”
“I was scared to go into the real world or what I looked at as the real world at the time, and [Ms. Abbott] just took me under her wing,” Brunson says. “She was an incredible teacher who put her all into it, making sure that her students felt special and were ready for the world.”
Prior to Abbott Elementary, Brunson became known for her viral short videos. She worked as a producer and actor for BuzzFeedVideo and was also a cast member on the first season of A Black Lady Sketch Show.
Now as the showrunner, she putting the network’s money where it’s so obviously needed. Recently, the production team and the network made a joint decision that some of the money earmarked for marketing the show should be redirected.
“We chose to put the marketing money toward supplies for teachers,” Brunson says. “It’s about being able to make those kinds of decisions that really excite me, things that can really materially help people.”
ABC was in fact playing the percentages when they had the pilot up on Hulu for a month so people could watch it and then come back with the network when the season started, as Cinemablend noted.
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Brunson acknowledged ABC’s thinking, saying, “I hoped that after two seasons, people were going to be like, ‘Hey, anyone ever heard of this show?’ The best recent sitcoms that I can think of, like Schitt’s Creek, didn’t start gaining traction until the second or third season — even The Office and 30 Rock didn’t initially make noise.”
READ MORE: Abbott Elementary’s Quinta Brunson On Why She Thinks The ABC Show Has Found An Audience So Quickly (Cinemablend)
But Abbott Elementary knows what it’s doing and who its personalities are almost right out of the gate. As of the fourth episode, the characters were already starting to feel as recognizable as family, and the laughs are coming harder and faster.
The episode “New Tech” is a classic, well-executed example of contemporary workplace comedy. The primary story line involves a new type of software the teachers are being forced to use to track student performance and, if the results are strong enough, which will hopefully gain more funding.
During a tutorial in which all the staff are given tablets to use, old-school teacher Barbara is immediately flummoxed but doesn’t want to let on that she can’t grasp new technology, so she pretends she’s mastered it and also totally gets how computers and the internet work. And the comedy ensues.
It could be called old-school comedy with that fairly misused term “charming,” which is frequently used as derogatory, but Vulture is right to identify Abbott Elementary as an acclamation to the teaching profession with all it’s been through in the last few years.
“If you’re a teacher who’s been working hard for years, and who is under even more stress during this pandemic, you probably just want to feel truly seen. Abbott Elementary definitely sees you.”
Want more? Quinta Brunson chats with Trevor Noah on The Daily Show about the mockumentary style of Abbott Elementary, how it works, why teachers should receive higher pay, and creating a “no asshole” work environment:
PBS discusses how the series is tackling issues of public education and equity through a lens of humor. Watch the full interview with actor Sheryl Lee Ralph in the video below: