Abbott Elementary, Disney Plus/Hulu review – witty mockumentary enters the classroom

As the principal of a school filled with underpaid, half-fried teachers, children capable of “psychological warfare,” and maintenance issues ranging from flickering lights to stinging walls and escaped snakes, Ava Coleman ( Janelle James) would do well not to draw attention to its shortcomings. But the director is optimistic about the publicity a documentary could generate. “No press is bad press – look at Mel Gibson,” she tells her unconvinced staff.

Abbott Elementary School, a delightful single-camera sitcom streaming on Disney Plus, brings the mockumentary to the teachers’ lounge and classrooms of a Philadelphia public school. If it goes without saying that the apotheosis of the format was reached 20 years ago with Office (or four decades ago with It’s Spinal Tap), he is a diligent student of his comedic ancestors. It may not be groundbreaking or iconoclastic, but there’s something to be said for mastering the ABCs of witty yet easy-to-digest comedy.

While Ava’s megalomania is easily comparable to that of David Brent (or Michael Scott, for those more familiar with American Desk), she is more of a scene stealer than the center of the show. Instead, the formidable ensemble is led by rookie teacher Janine (played by series creator Quinta Brunson). Despite the demands of the job and the principal’s low corruption, Janine’s childlike enthusiasm for her job is undiminished. Now entering her second year at Abbott, she sets out to make things better – from replacing a soiled carpet to hiring a resident artist – with varying degrees of success.

The formidable alum Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph) believes in making the most of what’s available. Quick to be biting, she also helps taciturn new recruit Gregory deal with difficult students and their equally earthy parents. He’s played by Tyler James Williams, who surely owes Martin Freeman royalties for his frequent puzzled looks on camera. Rounding out the group are hipster Jacob (Chris Perfetti) and middle-aged Melissa (Lisa Ann Walter), whose gruff exterior belies that she’s sweet as Philadelphia cream cheese on the inside.

Each of these characters have easily identifiable personalities but the show is careful not to indulge in stereotypes or cheap laughs. The tone is warm rather than tumultuous and the humor cynical rather than full-bodied. The cringe factor may make you squirm, but it won’t make you scrape your skin in embarrassment.

For all the sharp and referential dialogue, cutscenes and unexpected throwaway gags, Abbott Elementary School disarmingly succeeds in reminding us of the value of dedicated teachers who care for their students even when their own employers don’t. “We are social workers. We are therapists. We are second parents,” Barbara says at one point. It might not be the funniest line in the series, but it might be the truest.

★★★★☆

On Disney Plus in the UK and on Hulu and abc.com in the US now

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