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One Good Thing: ABC’s Abbott Elementary breathes new life into the mockumentary

The terrific new comedy remixes The Office to great, funny effect.

Tyler James Williams, Chris Perfetti, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Quinta Brunson, and Lisa Ann Walter stand in front of a school bus.
Abbott Elementary centers on a group of teachers trying to make things work at a desperately underfunded school. It’s funny. Promise.
Courtesy of ABC
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The TV mockumentary has fallen on hard times in recent years.

Once a fairly ubiquitous format for some of TV’s most popular sitcoms — including The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Modern Family — the mockumentary has lost favor with the people who make TV. When Modern Family ended in early 2020, the last major example of the form drifted away from broadcast TV.

This slow collapse happened for some good reasons. The further the mockumentary got from its roots, the more the devices of talking-head interviews and characters mugging to the camera felt like worn-out clichés, rather than the unconventional twists on sitcom rhythms they had been at one time.

The Office spent so much time thinking about who was filming the documentary within the show that it built a major plotline around the identity of those filmmakers in the final season. But Modern Family’s team never really bothered to establish why the characters were being filmed. It just didn’t care.

So if nothing else, ABC’s new series Abbott Elementary deserves points for making the mockumentary feel fresh again. The new sitcom, set in a cash-strapped public school in Philadelphia, has characters offering long, sardonic looks into the camera and occasional moments when they talk directly to it to share their thoughts. But the series has subtly rethought its approach to this material, so it never feels staid. It honestly took me a few minutes to realize I was watching a mockumentary, so successfully does the show tinker with the format.

Creator and star Quinta Brunson’s choices in the pilot underline what’s different here. Other mockumentaries have been built around singular, strong personalities, like Michael Scott or Leslie Knope. Abbott Elementary, however, is built around a kind of everywoman. Second-grade teacher Janine Teagues (Brunson) just wants to do good work and give her kids the education they need, despite how underfunded the school is. She’s navigating an American bureaucracy that increasingly doesn’t care, and a principal (the scene-stealing Janelle James) who has invited a news crew to the school to document everything that’s happening in a weird attempt to feed her own desire for fame.

The “just like you” protagonist has traditionally been the center of the American workplace sitcom, simply because the contrast between a Mary Richards (of The Mary Tyler Moore Show) or an Amy Sosa (of Superstore) and their more colorful colleagues can allow a show’s supporting characters to get weirder and weirder. But the mockumentary can struggle with having a more relatable protagonist, simply because the fake-documentary format can feel a little dry without someone outrageous there to spur the action.

But Brunson’s choice to center Janine and not one of the show’s goofier characters pays off. Yes, some of that is because Brunson plays Janine and knows exactly what will be funny in her specific voice, and some of that is because Brunson turns up Janine’s eager-to-please nature just enough in most scenes, so she seems slightly more heightened. But the chief reason Brunson’s choice works, I think, is due to the very different dramatic stakes of the series compared to most mockumentaries.

The school has no money. It’s falling apart. In the series’ second episode, Janine tries to fix a broken light fixture and knocks out the school’s power. The teachers at the school mostly move on after a year or two, and even Janine seems to have her moments of doubt. In the third episode, the teachers make wishlists to beg the community for supplies they desperately need for their classrooms, because nobody else is going to step in with the funds.

In the context of that setting, a relatable protagonist who’s just trying to do her best and hold the school together is a perfect choice to head up this particular show. And the show’s lead director, Randall Einhorn (who was instrumental in creating the initial look of The Office), subtly underscores the ideas within the show via careful shifts in the usual mockumentary filmmaking.

The cameras move a lot here, befitting the idea of a news crew trying to capture a few days in the life of a school. When characters talk to the camera, they’re rarely seated for a perfect talking-head interview. Instead the camera might, say, look down on the shorter Brunson, so she has to look up slightly to talk directly to it. It’s a subtle change, and one that bears fruit.

But none of these storytelling and filmmaking choices would be as effective as they are without strong characters, and Abbott’s ensemble is already littered with very funny players. James’s spin on a fame-hungry principal is a delightful new take on the sitcom boss, and Broadway legend and original Dreamgirls star Sheryl Lee Ralph is pitch-perfect as the legendary teacher Miss Howard, whom Janine longs so desperately to impress. I also love Chris Perfetti’s take on what’s becoming a new comedic type: the nerdy progressive white guy desperate to seem like he knows he’s part of the problem.

It’s worth calling out one performance here in particular. Just like The Office, Abbott Elementary has a will-they/won’t-they romantic plotline already burbling in the background. The series’ pilot features the first day for a new sub named Gregory, played by Tyler James Williams. And would you believe that he and Janine hit it off? But a will-they/won’t-they, when handled well, is like nothing else in TV comedy, and Janine and Gregory’s flirtation through the show’s first five episodes is already percolating nicely.

Williams has been starring in sitcoms since he was a child, when he played the young Chris Rock in Everybody Hates Chris, and his obvious ease in front of the camera makes him the right guy to offer little sidelong glances to the viewers at home. Brunson rose out of the world of web comedy, giving her a different energy. So much of creating strong fictional relationships on TV is finding two actors whose performance styles spark instantly, and Brunson and Williams have an immediate rapport.

The 2021-22 TV season has been a surprisingly good one for the network sitcom, with a variety of series (CBS’s Ghosts, NBC’s American Auto and Grand Crew, etc.) offering consistent laughs and frequent reminders of why the TV sitcom remains so comforting to so many. But even in such a strong year, Abbott Elementary is the cream of an impressive crop. Here’s hoping it runs for many seasons to come, and that its take on the mockumentary breathes new life into something that seemed stale just a few months ago.

Abbott Elementary airs Tuesdays at 9 pm Eastern on ABC. Previous episodes are available on Hulu.

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