Familiar School Comedy Hijinks Updated for Today in Abbott Elementary

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Abbott Elementary. ABC. Tuesday, December 7, 9:30 p.m.

Ordinarily, broadcast network television quiets down in December, airing reruns and burning off failed pilots while awaiting the burst of new midseason shows in January. But this week, ABC is debuting an epic new time-travel story. No, not the long-threatened remake of The Time Tunnel. It’s Abbott Elementary, a new sitcom about a raucous inner-city grade school and the teachers trying to survive it. Watching it will definitely give you some painful 1960s and 1970s whiplash.

Each episode of Abbott Elementary starts like the prototype schoolteacher TV show of the mid-1970s, Welcome Back, Kotter, with a beleaguered teacher armed with nothing more than his or her wits (or, more properly, those of his screenwriters) as he or she fends off underage extortionists and bunco artists who resemble less a class than a street gang.

But by the end of the show, you’ll find yourself tumbling into the early 1960s, when TV teachers were sociologist wannabes, tenderly caring for misunderstood teenagers in teary dramas like Mr. Novak and Room 222. And more often than you might wish, you’ll find yourself longing for a visit from that archetypal character of the 1950s, Officer Krupke.

Written and starring internet comedian Quinta BrunsonAbbott Elementary‘s getting a quickie sneak preview before joining the regular ABC schedule next month. It’s a mockumentary purportedly based on her mother’s account of 40 years teaching in Philadelphia schools. And much of it is sulphurously funny. Brunson plays second-year teacher (one of three survivors of the 20 new recruits a year ago) Janine Teagues, still bubbly though her professional ambitions are considerably shrunken from her college days: “I became a teacher to make sure students come out alive.”

The faculty also includes her hopelessly ineffectual buddy (“trauma-bonding, I guess”) Jonah Hill (Chris Perfeti, The Night Of), who just realized his life-long ambition of being retweeted by Rachel freaking Maddow; Melissa Schemmenti (Lisa Ann Walter, The Exes), whose Sicilian heritage comes in handy in keeping her students in line; and Barbara Howard (Sheryl Lee Ralph, Ray Donovan), a stern-faced and self-proclaimed “woman of God” whose major career objective is to never have to have to eat lunch with Janine.

Oh, and there’s also Mr. Johnson (William Stanford Davis, Ray Donovan), a janitor who took over a classroom after the previous teacher was suspended for kicking (or, as the official report put it in an attempt at delicacy, “punting”) a student. Mr. Johnson’s first act as a teacher is to scrawl “ILLUMINATI” on the chalkboard and advise his students: “That’s who runs the world, kids.” The team is supervised by the jargon-spouting educrat Principal Ava Coleman (Janelle James, Black Monday), inevitably described by her colleagues as “unique.” (“It means she’s bad at her job,” explains Janine helpfully.)

If this does not exactly sound like a band of scholastic superheroes, you’re getting the idea. Life at the school is a continuous cycle of hopeless malfunction, from story-time rugs perishing of urine-poisoning to hamster-powered lights and air-conditioning. The kids, at least the un-punted ones, plot resistance with malicious glee. We’re a long way from Sweet Valley High here.

The characters are hilariously well-drawn (and authentic, too; I think my father, an epic grumbler during his 20-some years teaching high-school biology, would have recognized all of them). And Brunson, in her first outing as a producer, has an exquisite sense of comic juxtaposition, using puffy voiceovers by Janine (“They’re all amazing teachers, I really look up to them all!) atop footage of her colleagues huddled to ward off barrages of kiddie-hurled junk, scurrying to douse blazing wastebaskets with fire extinguishers, and flouncing out of classrooms with a box of belongings in one hand and an upraised middle finger in the other.

What Brunson doesn’t have is the courage of her cynical convictions. All three episodes of Abbott Elementary that I watched ended with abrupt reversals in which the teachers, after 20 minutes of chaos, indolence, thievery, and swinish maladministration, spend the final two gushing platitudes about the nobility of their profession and its perpetual self-sacrifice, padded with syrupy, self-serving questions like, “How do you and Barbara stop yourself from caring too much?” To which I can only reply with the text of a note found in the students’ suggestion box in the classic 1965 novel about New York public schools, Up the Down Staircase: “Fuk. Screw. Crap. Goddam. Nerts to you.”

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