I was, shall we say, an early adopter of Abbott Elementary.
When you’ve been writing about television as long as I have, the list of shows that immediately stand out as special is small. Because let’s be honest, most shows are neither really, really good nor really, really bad. Most new series fall into the dreaded “eh, it’s fine” category.
But sometimes there’s that magical moment when you realize you are watching something truly exceptional amid the slog of new shows. It’s happened to me with The O.C. and The Good Wife and Lost and Ted Lasso. When you’re lucky, the shows you think are extraordinary are ones that bigger audiences like, too. I still lament the cancellation of Fox’s 2010 series Lone Star which was canceled after only airing two episodes. (As I’ve discussed in the past, that show should have made James Wolk a huge star.)
Last December, that special moment happened to me with ABC’s Abbott Elementary. From the moment I watched the pilot, I knew the show was much more than the typical network sitcom drudgery (lame punchline, tinny laugh track, repeat). There was a grounded sweetness to the show. It was neither saccharine nor sardonic. We were introduced to the teachers of Philadelphia public school: the earnest Janine (series creator Quinta Brunson), veteran teachers Melissa (Lisa Ann Water) and Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph), as well as reluctant substitute Gregory (Tyler James Williams), the socially inept Jacob (Chris Perfetti), and the self-centered and clueless principal Ava (Janelle James). As a group, they immediately clicked; their combined comedic beats were perfect. The pilot was hilarious but also moving, all while shedding light on the underfunded public school system without being patronizing or exploitative.
When I wrote my 5 New Shows You Can’t Miss column for that month, I called Abbott “The best new network show of the season.” That pull quote was everywhere. I was so delighted to see the show become an almost overnight success and that its quality remained consistently fabulous. That’s no easy feat. And I have been so amused by the “everything old is new again” reaction to a network show getting this much love. What’s that you say? You have to wait an entire week between episodes. They are going to 22 episodes in a single season!? We only have to wait three months between seasons. This is amazing!
The critical response to the comedy has been equally remarkable. Earlier this month, it won three of the seven Emmys it was nominated for: one for Brunson for writing the stellar pilot, one for Wendy O’Brien for the pitch-perfect casting of the show, and one for Ralph for Outstanding Supporting Actress (Ralph’s joyous acceptance speech was instantly iconic). The Television Critics Association (of which I am a member) handed the show four awards in August, including Outstanding Achievement In Comedy, Outstanding New Program, and the prestigious Program Of The Year Award. It beat out shows including Better Call Saul, Squid Game, and Succession for that honor. Brunson signed an overall multi-year deal with Warner Bros. Outlets ran stories with headlines like How Abbott Elementary Reinvigorated the Network Sitcom.
I’ve seen the first two episodes of the new season, and they are everything you would want and expect the show to be. Warm, hilarious, relatable, and damn if the end of the second season premiere didn’t make me cry. But, I’m not going to lie, I’m worried about the show. Well actually not the show, but viewers’ reaction to the show.
We, as a pop-culture loving society, love to build things up only to tear them down. And the hype surrounding Abbott Elementary has reached a feverish crescendo. It reminds me of what happened to Friends during the show’s second season when they aired a celebrity infused special episode after the Super Bowl and had a weeks-long promotion campaign involving Diet Coke. Suddenly the show that viewers adored was facing backlash. And that was before social media where backlash can mobilize in a matter of minutes.
(FOX, not ABC, is airing the Super Bowl in February, and Abbott Elementary’s biggest promotional tie-in seems to be with Lakeshore Learning and awarding shopping sprees to teachers, so I think we are okay there. I hope!)
A second season is typically where a show truly finds itself. The creators, writers and executive producers must move beyond the promising premise. With network shows, the process is even more intense as Abbott Elementary must put out 22 episodes between now and next May. Brunson appears to be acutely aware of this. Last season, they had completed all 13 episodes before the pilot aired. This year they will be producing episodes as people are watching the second season. “I want to make sure that we have things for people to tune into and be excited about each week,” Brunson recently told television critics during ABC’s summer press tour. “That’s just hard to do with 22. With 13, I knew I could put something in there that would make people show up. In this ever-changing, but binge-worthy climate, this is not something people would be able to binge immediately. So I want to make sure they will be back with us every week that we are on the air.”
Abbott Elementary is terrific, but are our expectations too high? Is it fair to expect it to single-handedly save network TV? Is it okay if some people don’t love it? Will we as viewers give it room to grow creatively and make mistakes this season? Will we show patience with the will-they-or-won’t-they nature of the Janine and Gregory potential romance? Can we be less quick to judge and more encouraging of a series with so much potential?
In but one example, never forget that we forgave Friday Night Lights for the second season murder storyline. Sweet baby Jesus and the grown one too. I hope viewers are ready to extend Abbott Elementary the same grace. If not, I know a guy.
Abbott Elementary Season 2 premieres Wednesday, September 21st on ABC, and will stream the next day on Hulu.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer and a member of the Television Critics Association. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
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