Quinta Brunson is the creative genius behind ABC’s ratings-breaking Abbott Elementary. Brunson, astutely insightful, takes a series about an elementary school and gives it the mockumentary treatment, e.g., The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Modern Family. Using this format highlights the textured voices of teachers and the daily challenges they face, like not getting enough funds and resources to do their jobs properly. In addition to playing neophyte teacher and central protagonist, Janine Teagues, Brunson serves as Abbott Elementary’s showrunner.
Abbott Elementary – Cast & Reviews
TEACHERS ARE SUPERHEROES
Which teacher would you name a TV show after if you had the chance? In Brunson’s case, she honored Ms. Joyce Abbott, her favorite Philadelphia-based 6th-grade teacher, by calling her critically-acclaimed show Abbott Elementary cast. My show would be “Colquitt Elementary” in honor of my 2nd Grade teacher, Mrs. Doris Colquitt, who made my shy and awkward “new kid in school” self feel seen and heard. Each time I see her, I travel right back to my giddy 7-year-old self. Beloved teachers have a way of making you feel that way, like when Jimmy Kimmel surprised Brunson with a special guest appearance of Ms. Abbott on his show. But Oprah was one of the first celebrities to elevate teachers, rightfully, to superhero status. Who can forget how Oprah was reduced to a puddle of sobs when her favorite teacher, Mrs. Duncan came on her show? Or because of her appreciation, when she gifted an audience of 300 school teachers each a brand new car, thereby gifting all of us the ubiquitous “You get a car!” meme.
My mother is a retired superhero, as are most of her friends, hence the blueprint of my childhood. The familiarity with mimeographing tests, cutting out construction paper borders, and block letters for bulletin boards. My mom is from the old, old school, an era when Black women who were teachers were also the community’s eyes, ears, and heartbeat. Pre-Civil Rights Act of 1964, Black teachers could only teach in certain places in the south. So my mom, a North Carolina girl, found her first job hundreds of miles away from home at Waverly Hall Elementary like Janine is learning the ropes at Abbott Elementary. As Brunson highlights in her show, the issues faced were similar: needs for supplies, making do with what you have, and always getting to the heart of the matter, the kids.
ABBOTT ELEMENTARY FACULTY & STAFF
Janine is bright-eyed and optimistic, probably, with a copy of Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” on a CD in her car because she’s just that hopeful. She also has a healthy dose of respect and maybe a slight obsession with Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph), who she anoints “mom-tor.” Though Barbara often seems annoyed with Janine, she also always has her best interest at heart as a true mentor would.
The perfect antagonist to Janine’s ever hopeful protagonist is Principal Ava Coleman played to perfection by Janelle James. Ava’s antics are always scene-stealers which is no surprise if you’ve watched her Netflix comedy specials. James brings an acerbic wit to the roles with a level of sobriety at unexpected moments, like when it’s revealed she cares for a grandparent with dementia.
The ensemble cast is rounded off by:
- Barbara Howard (Sheryl Lee Ralph) is an old-school teacher. Her resolve is mixed with reserve and elegance where you let your eyes and expression, or simple questions. She’s that teacher who never speaks above a certain decibel to get her point across.
- Melissa Schemmenti (Lisa Ann Walter) is that teacher who wears leather pants, plays poker on slow parent-teacher conference nights, and leaves raw fish to languish in the work refrigerator. She has a knife’s edge but is fiercely loyal to her ace “Barbara” and the students.
- Jacob Hill (Chris Perfetti) is Janine’s optimism twin. He’s her ace when it comes to doing good for the greater good and creating awkward moments for himself in this same pursuit. He convinces Barbara to create a garden in hopes that they could produce enough vegetables for the school, which turns into one zucchini. Jacob, openly gay, introduces his boyfriend, Zach, to his coworkers in the episode “Desking.” He also wants to be besties with Greg but has not figured out how.
- Greg (Tyler James Williams) is a straight-laced upright, uptight substitute teacher. As time passes, Greg invests more personally in his students and Janine, if not for her boyfriend, Tariq. Tariq is an aspiring rap artist who can’t seem to create bars that rhyme with “responsibility” or enough income to help pay the rent.
- Mr. Johnson (William Stanford Davis) is a world-traveled, storied custodian with a system for the breaker panel based on Boys To Men songs.
- The students of Abbott Elementary have integral parts in the series. This includes the nightmare transfer student, the new gifted kid, and the supposed reading phenom more interested in his dance because, as he says, “that’s what I do, Ms. Howard!”
JANINE GOES TO SCHOOL: MY TOP EPISODES
In one of my favorite episodes, “Work-Family,” Janine gets Tariq a gig to visit Abbot Elementary and do an original rap at a school assembly. Some important life questions are pondered in this hilarious episode, like 1) is a “work friend” indeed a “friend friend”? 2) are your coworkers who you spend most of the day with your family or not?; and 3) why has Janine only dated one person since the 8th grade? In a meme-worthy moment, we almost understand how Janine and Tariq Abbott elementary have managed to stay together when they do their celebratory handshake before his “performance.”
So if you’re tardy for class, in addition to “Work Family,” here are 5 Abbott Elementary episodes summarizing what they teach Janine.
- Light Bulb – Janine learns she can’t save the world, especially on an empty stomach.
- Wish List – Janine learns she can’t leave Ava to her own devices to take care of a problem, especially if it’s to help Mrs. Howard.
- New Tech – Janine learns that Mrs. Howard is not perfect and has a lot to learn but not necessarily from her.
- Student Transfer – Janine learns that Melissa has feelings also and that being perfect is not always excellent.
- Step Class – Janine learns that Ava is more than what meets the surface… sometimes.
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