On ‘Abbott Elementary,’ Quinta Brunson depicts teachers with optimism and a ‘certain amount of realism’

Viewers and critics alike are drawn to the ABC sitcom with an earnest tone that works as a soothing antidote amid real-world conflict.

SHARE On ‘Abbott Elementary,’ Quinta Brunson depicts teachers with optimism and a ‘certain amount of realism’

Philadelphia native and former Second City student Quinta Brunson plays second-grade teacher Janine Teagues on “Abbott Elementary.”


The report cards arrive weekly at “Abbott Elementary.” During and after every episode of the season’s most critically acclaimed sitcom, viewers jump on to social media to give their grades, and so far the marks have been good.

The fan response to the ABC workplace comedy (8 p.m. Tuesdays, WLS-Channel 7) is part of its cultural resonance for creator and star Quinta Brunson.

“I prepared for people to think this was a good show, but maybe not so quickly,” she says with a laugh in a recent phone interview. 

“Abbott,” which the network recently picked up for a second season, has helped Brunson discover ”how to have boundaries” while wearing many hats as showrunner, executive producer and actor, playing the lovably optimistic, well-intentioned second-grade teacher Janine Teagues.

At the show’s fictional Philadelphia public school, the teachers and staff deal with flickering lights and dilapidated rugs, budget cuts at the already underfunded school and, at times, each other’s hijinks to give their young students the education they deserve. Its reflection of real life is part of the show’s appeal.

Janine’s “immense bravery” in a ”pessimistic world is very admirable,” says Tyler James Williams, who plays substitute teacher Gregory Eddie. He praises her “ability to maintain optimism in the midst of not only our time, but in … knowing that there’s not always an answer to get something, but she’s going to figure it out anyway.”

“Abbott” has been compared to popular workplace comedies including “Parks and Recreation” and “The Office” because of its ensemble cast and mockumentary format. 

Veteran actors—Sheryl Lee Ralph (“Moesha”), who stars as stalwart educator Barbara Howard, and Lisa Ann Walter (“The Parent Trap”), who plays Philly native teacher Melissa Schemmenti—round out a cast that also includes Janelle James as underqualified principal Ava, Chris Perfetti as eager teacher Jacob Hill and William Stanford Davis as school janitor Mr. Johnson. 

That “Abbott” remains earnest works as a soothing antidote amid real-world conflict, and draws from Brunson’s personal life.

The series (and school) are named after Brunson’s “incredible” sixth-grade teacher, Joyce Abbott, with whom Brunson’s been in contact since the show premiered. And Ralph’s Mrs. Howard, who serves as work mom and mentor (or “mom-tor”) to Janine, was inspired by Brunson’s mother, a Philadelphia school teacher. 

“I was visiting my mom one night at the school she was teaching at, and honestly I was upset that she was at the school so late during an open house and was kind of pushing her to retire,” says Brunson, 32. “Watching my mom do something I’ve seen her do my whole life, but now with a little bit of distance from it” sparked the idea of the series.

Ralph and Williams both worked with Brunson, a former Second City student, on HBO’s ”A Black Lady Sketch Show,” and Brunson says their reactions while filming the pilot episode convinced her the show could be something special.

Williams, who played a young Chris Rock in the 2005-09 comedy ”Everybody Hates Chris,” has charted almost 20 years in the industry. “We have a bunch of seasoned actors who’ve all done comedy really well and know how not to [crack up],” he says, “and yet I look around [and] no one can keep it together.”

Is Brunson overwhelmed by the love from fans and critics? 

“I feel whelmed,” she says. “I feel like, ‘OK, the plates are full.’ ”

Channing Dungey, chairman of “Abbott” producer Warner Bros. Television Group, notes the show’s December premiere came after the pandemic forced many parents to become teachers at home during months of lockdown, when “everybody [was] looking at teaching through a slightly different and more appreciative lens. We’re also at a point right now where people are really looking for everyday heroes, and teachers are everyday heroes.”

Brunson says she “did not want the Hollywood version of the teacher. I want them to look like real teachers.” In that “certain amount of realism” comes representation, she says: ”It’s more than just us having a predominantly Black cast, it’s in the presentation of the show.” 

And she can even “imagine a Season 9” for “Abbott.”

“It’s not that I know we’ll get there, I just imagine some type of endpoint to be going toward,” which she’s already envisioned. “Sometimes while you’re in the [writers’] room and everybody’s working with each other … those things will change,” Brunson says. “But I do have an end game for us.”

Read more at usatoday.com

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