Fresh off Emmy wins for show creator Quinta Brunson and star Sheryl Lee Ralph, Season 2 of “Abbott Elementary” returns as confident as ever — sharp and searingly funny, but with a baseline warmth that feels meaningful in a world that’s become increasingly cold to the idea that we’re meant to look out for one another.
It’s been a long few months since we’ve had new episodes of this sitcom and its fictional portrayal of life in a chronically underfunded Philadelphia public school. I didn’t realize how much I had been holding my breath for its return on ABC (and Hulu). Watching the first two episodes provided to critics, I laughed all the laughs and choked back all the feel-good tears. It’s such a perfect amalgam of talents both in front of and behind the camera.
In the years since streaming became ascendant, older sitcoms like “The Office” and “Friends” became hits all over again while so many newer sitcoms struggled to catch fire, regardless of where they aired. “Abbott” is a reminder that there’s still value in this format — if you do it right. Even on a broadcast network. Especially on a broadcast network. The show manages to be unflinching but also hilariously self-deprecating about the human condition. That’s quite the balancing act from Brunson and her team of writers.
“Abbot” doesn’t pretend that having a full-time job in present-day America automatically means you can afford to pay rent. But it’s also fundamentally rooted in an even more basic reality: We’re all we’ve got. So let’s figure out a way to band together — even if we don’t necessarily like each other — and work around and subvert all those systems that are seemingly too big to fail.
That’s a really powerful idea around which to center a show, and “Abbott” doesn’t fall into the kind of traps that make it feel preachy or naive or pushily earnest. It’s simply firm about the importance of workaday people doing their best in ridiculous circumstances.
It’s striking how well-defined the adult denizens of “Abbott” were from the start — and remain. It’s the start of the new school year and Gregory (played by the underrated Tyler James Williams) is overwhelmed by the sheer tonnage of schoolwork they’re expected to teach, according to the district-mandated curriculum. So he draws up a schedule to map out his lesson plan, down to the minute. His more veteran and practical-minded colleague Barbara (the inimitable Ralph) stops by to see how he’s doing and is … alarmed.
“Gregory, what if something goes wrong and you get a millisecond off this very impressive map?” Ralph is the kind of actor who can deliver a blunt critique and still make it sound like she’s in your corner. “I accounted for that,” Gregory assures her intensely. “Imagining the worst thing that could happen is one of my best qualities.” His cool customer exterior never quite masks his anxieties and it’s such an entertaining blend of qualities.
Brunson’s perpetually optimistic Janine hasn’t lost her spark. She’s well-meaning, corny and a bit much. But even she knows it: “A ‘bit much’ is my brand.” To thine own self be true, Janine! Or as fellow teacher Melissa, the gruff softy played by Lisa Ann Walter, says drolly: “In the end times, it’s just going to be cockroaches on the empty streets and Janine holding up a sign that says ‘Turn that frown upside down.’”
Sometimes a sitcom has a breakout star, and it’s not uncommon to see the show gradually readjust its priorities to give that character a bigger focus. I appreciate that “Abbott” has avoided this. I think it’s largely because the show has such a well-formed concept of why this ensemble works so well, particularly as that relates to the genuinely hilarious Janelle James as Ava, the school’s over-the-top, frequently ineffectual principal. I’m curious to see how long the show will allow her character’s sexual harassment of Gregory to persist. It’s really my only critique; too often these moments are treated as just another cringey example of Ava’s inappropriateness, when really they’re just gross. I don’t think it’s enough to have Gregory turning to the camera with an uncomfortable look. But the writers have been so smart that I have to think there’s a long-term plan to reframe the Ava-Gregory dynamic in different ways. Or at least have Gregory’s colleagues even acknowledge that this is happening each time Ava eyeballs him.
The show works as well as it does because of its blend of personalities, which also includes William Stanford Davis as the unpredictable, no-filter janitor Mr. Johnson, and Janine’s best pal at school, the wonderfully awkward and loyal Jacob, played by Chris Perfetti.
Brunson has long said she’s a believer in the kinds of sitcoms that were once the backbone of broadcast TV — shows that have cross-generational appeal. “Abbott” never does that hacky thing where “someone undermines someone else” is the only way to create drama or comedy. In fact, the show understands that often, larger forces are the real nemesis most people face in their everyday lives.
Over the years, there have only been a handful of TV comedies that take place in public schools. “Welcome Back, Kotter” from the 70s comes to mind, as does its indelible theme song: “Welcome back, your dreams were your ticket out.”
Welcome back, Brunson. Your dreams were your ticket in.
“Abbott Elementary” — 4 stars (out of four)
Where to watch: 8 p.m. Wednesdays on ABC and streaming on Hulu
Nina Metz is a Tribune critic
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