Janelle James, Abbott Elementary‘s Teacher of the Year

Comedy Features Janelle James
Janelle James, Abbott Elementary‘s Teacher of the Year

The mockumentary format and the network sitcom in general are in their flop era, but the new kid at ABC, Abbott Elementary, is breaking through the noise. Created by and starring Quinta Brunson, Abbott Elementary follows the teaching staff of a severely underfunded public school in Philadelphia and, unlike other shows, it doesn’t shy away from real issues arising from those inequities. Abbott doesn’t bottle it all up into a one-off, “very special” episode either, but rather weaves these systemic problems into the fibers of each episode. The series isn’t heavy-handed nor overly dark. It’s a playful, yet authentic look at the US public school system in a classic sitcom format that puts jokes first. Whereas some “prestigious” comedies of late have more heart than humor, or are more soul-crushing than knee-slapping, there is no confusion about Abbott. It’s a comedy through and through.

Abbott is a welcome return to form, but that doesn’t mean it has fully landed yet. It’s still a pretty green series, as are most TV shows in their first season. It may be difficult to be patient after being spoiled by the recent string of above-average rookie shows, but TV fans must remind ourselves that most shows need time to mature and fully flesh out their themes and characters. Iconic shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation were initially unwatchable and didn’t win back a good segment of their viewers for another two to three years when it crossed into Emmy-winning territory. Producing a pretty good first season is an achievement and a decent pilot even more so.

Abbott’s report card shows a solid B-student with signs of promise, but one particular area of excellence is comedian Janelle James’ performance as Ava Coleman. The inept principal has been stealing scenes and school funds since the pilot, making James one of the funniest people on TV today.

In addition to stand-up (her new half-hour special featured as part of season three of Netflix’s The Standups), James has made her rounds in the writer’s room of such comedies as Black Monday and Central Park. While she’s played a recurring character on both, Abbott is her first time being a main cast member. For myself and many others, she’s also the main reason we keep coming back week after week.

Being the lead or having your name in a show’s title has eternally been touted as the dream, but it’s often the supporting cast that features many of our more memorable characters. Supporting players like The Office’s Dwight Schrute, Derry Girls’ Orla McCool, and Arrested Development’s Lucille Bluth get to be joke machines, unburdened with the responsibilities of being the glue guy of the cast or the story’s driving force. That isn’t to say these roles are one-note, just less saddled with the tasks of fueling overall emotional pull and plot direction than a lead is. That void can then be stuffed full of jokes, and we love sitcoms for the jokes (or used to, at least). As a stand-up comedian, James understands comedic timing and delivery. She knows how to command a room which, surprisingly, doesn’t always translate to TV and film as we’ve seen from so many industry darlings’ struggles, but James is different. Her acting prowess came flying right out of the gate in the pilot. Her character, Ava Coleman, is quickly established as an uproarious character, a woman who does what’s best for herself first and foremost, which is often at odds with her position as someone responsible for a building full of kids.

While Ava feels larger than life, James’ handling of one-liners, facial expressions, and background acting covers the full spectrum of jobs an actor can have in a given scene. Ava’s antics carry the scene when they need to and subtlety accent it when and where they should. Because of this, repeat viewings are needed to fully appreciate each acute comedic bit. One of Ava’s most viral moments comes from a nonchalant and cheeky hair flip to camera as she exits the frame/teachers lounge during one of Janine Teague’s (Brunson) exasperated briefings. I actually missed it at first viewing, which isn’t an indictment on the direction, but rather praise for it. Such perfect execution made me feel like we were back in Scranton, Pennsylvania circa 2007 and reconfirmed how the mockumentary’s fourth-wall breaking device has been so poorly utilized since. Like hit songs on the radio, the mockumentary structure is overused. Shows like The Office did for sitcoms what Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy did to the DCEU; an example of producers finding something that works in other projects but misunderstanding why it works. What followed was a series of duds over-saturated with hollow talking heads and fourth-wall breaks resembling nothing more than a raised eyebrow to camera. On any other program, Ava’s hair flip would have been front-and-center, calling incredible attention to itself for such a short and sweet joke. Much of network TV seems to perpetuate the notion that the only way to act is to go big, when so much comedy can actually be wrangled from quick and slick throwaway snippets. James plays to the camera with Fleabag levels of execution. She’s expressive but not hammy, with a persona that’s distinct but not predictable.

Ava may not have “earned” her position as principal (she caught the superintendent having an affair) or know when school starts, but she has many other great qualities. She keeps a vigilant watch for global catastrophes like earthquakes and zombie outbreaks (“You know they eat the hottest people first, let me back my tasty ass up…”) and arranges student files by sexiest dad. She’s got her teachers’ backs when they’re in a pickle (“Normally, I encourage cheating but, girl, you gots to let me know.”) and doesn’t judge them by their appearances, because even if you look like you can’t twerk that doesn’t mean you can’t surprise people.

Part of what makes Abbott a good workplace comedy is its accurate portrayal of workplace civility. While the faculty can (and do) openly diss each other, it would be exhausting to keep it up 24/7. They need to find how to exist with each other. Despite the lack of professional respect her staff has for her, Ava still manages a decent rapport with teachers like fellow Abbott standout Barbara Howard, played by Sheryl Lee Ralph. The two are so comfortable in their characters’ shoes that Ava and Barbara feel like they’ve been around for years. Watching James hold her own alongside such a seasoned pro like Ralph shows she has a long career in front of the camera if she wants it.

Ava is even willing to help her most contentious coworker, Janine, as clearly seen in the episodes “Step” and season’s best (so far) “Wishlist,” in which Janine employs Ava’s social media savvy to make high-engagement TikToks for her school supply drive. Both are the show’s most chaotic characters, making life harder for everyone at Abbot Elementary. Janine inadvertently starts fires through her altruism, whereas Ava does so through her self-centered attitude and anti-work mentality. Their self-admiration and shared need to do what they want, how they want makes each obnoxious in their own right and sets up routine clashes with others whose needs don’t always align with their wants.

One could paint Ava as the show’s villain, but she’s more of a neutral player. And though individualistic to a fault, I am always rooting for her because what she wants is what’s best for comedy fans. Like making a kindergartner read her Michelle Obama’s memoir or turning her office into a TikTok production studio, Ava’s reign is a beautiful car crash. And like with NASCAR, I don’t care about the race, I just want to see some shit get wrecked. I’ll be ready to fight come Emmy season if James’ multifaceted talent doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. Summed up best by James herself, “I do a lot. Get into me.”

Olivia Cathcart is a comedian and writer.

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