Abbott Elementary Started as a Mockumentary, but It Doesn’t Have to Stay That Way

TV Features Abbott Elementary
Abbott Elementary Started as a Mockumentary, but It Doesn’t Have to Stay That Way

In the winter finale of the ABC comedy Abbott Elementary, star and creator Quinta Brunson’s guileless second-grade teacher Janine Teagues sheds her CandyLand-inspired skirts and chunky sweaters to spend her first night of the holiday break on the dance floor.

No one is more shocked by this glow-up than two of Janine’s coworkers, Gregory (Tyler James Williams) and Ava (Janelle James), who each separately happen upon the club. This after-school activity is also a great opportunity to add more sparks to the more-than-friends feelings that Gregory and Janine clearly have for each other. But when they step outside the club to have a private conversation, Gregory is suddenly called away by his girlfriend. He runs off, without a coat, into the snowy Philadelphia night.

So much of this episode is great. The writing is superb. The actors are adorable together and do a great job of giving the audience what we want (#Jagory? Is that a thing?). James’ Ava asking the bartender for a cheap drink just so she can do a spit-take at seeing the couple grinding on the dance floor? A+. No notes.

What doesn’t make sense is the suggestion that this, along with everything else that we see happen on Abbott, is being filmed for a documentary about the school. Like The Office and Parks and Recreation before it, Abbott uses the mockumentary gimmick as an entrypoint for a workplace comedy. And this works fine for scenes actually set in the workplace; Gregory’s fourth-wall breaking wide-eyed exasperation and shock at some of the things Ava says on school grounds clearly share the same family tree as Jim Halpert’s penchant for sucking in his bottom lip every time Michael Scott opens his mouth.

But it does not translate well to scenes that depict what happens to the teachers after hours, where there’s no natural place for exposition and talking heads. Sometimes, the series’ writers offer forced excuses for why the cameras are there in the evening (an episode set at the home of the ballsy Melissa Schemmenti shows her cursing; something she says she’d never do at school but has every intention of doing once she closes her front door). Other times, like the scene in the dance club, it’s like the show has forgotten it’s supposed to be a mockumentary. And, honestly? Maybe that solves half the problem right there.

The TV mockumentary format originally exploded after the success of the U.K. comedy The Office, resulting in beloved shows like the aforementioned NBC comedies and the Emmy-winning juggernaut that was ABC’s Modern Family. It is understandably easier for a development executive to get on board with a tried-and-true formula, especially since Brunson’s original vision was an animated series (her co-showrunners on Abbott are Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker of the profanity-laced HBO Max animated series Harley Quinn. Melissa Schemmenti would love it).

And, like everything successful, the formula runs the risk of being over-watered. We saw this happen with the mockumentary format when it became the lazy writer’s genre of choice, in order to handle way too much exposition. Peacock’s miniseries Angelyne used it this year to make a show that was supposed to be in the style of a biographical history series. The first season of HBO’s Big Little Lies almost had a version of it by setting up the plot through police interviews. (“So we’re like, seriously, using the word ‘murder’?”).

At this point, the most successful thing a mockumentary can do is mock itself. IFC’s Documentary Now! is an anthology of riffs on famous documentaries like Jiro Dreams of Sushi or The Thin Blue Line. The FX series What We Do In the Shadows takes things even further, incorporating the supposed filmmakers making a documentary about Staten Island vampires into its plot, and showing a Blair Witch-style camera angle as the crew runs from danger. Or, in another example, we see them receive VIP media passes to an exclusive vampire event. And this past season, in a truly ouroboros moment for the genre, the show introduced a Property Brothers-like home makeover show that was recording its own episode at the vampires’ lair as the so-called documentary was filming it.

The thing is, Abbott doesn’t need a gimmick. It’s already a great show. Opportunities to focus on the reality of underfunded and ignored public schools are usually the purview of actual documentaries, like Steve James’ Starz miniseries, America to Me. Infusing reality into the fictional scripted comedy space tricks audiences into eating some vegetables when they think they’re just relaxing with a half hour of light candy. And the writers, cast, and crew know it. This year, episodes have dealt with broken toilets, a substitute teacher shortage, and the tiresome quest to find a desk for a kid in a wheelchair after kindergarten teacher Barbara Howard (Sheryl Lee Ralph) is already taking the win that she was able to get funding for a ramp to be installed.

Abbott has the chance to reinvent the formula and make us question what actually makes a show a “mockumentary,” beside forced interactions with camera crews. If that element is taken away, does anything about an outsider who learns about an insular group have its bones in this format? By that definition, the CBS comedy Ghosts is a mockumentary because it involves Rose McIver’s Sam learning about the previous lives of the spirits who inhabit her house. The Apple TV+ darky comedy Bad Sisters could be too because it’s about two guys researching the backstory of one family.

A mockumentary format also cuts into the authenticity of the characters. Knowing a camera is recording your conversations makes everyone more guarded. It would be much more realistic— and natural—for a parent to challenge a teacher’s assumptions about her based on the way she dressed if she knew that conversation wouldn’t be saved for posterity. And a dedicated teacher definitely wouldn’t want to be caught talking with her friend about relationship dramas. Did all the parents at the school sign consent forms for their children to be included in the footage? Or should some (or all) of the minors be blurred? These are the questions the format can’t help but bring up when stretched to these extremes.

What Abbott actually is, and what it should embrace being, is a mocku-script hybrid. Use the documentary format, if you must. But also play up what’s great about the series without struggling to shoe-horn it into one formula of storytelling.

Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment journalist with, what some may argue, an unhealthy love affair with her TV. A former staff writer at both Los Angeles Times and Variety, her writing has also appeared in Cosmopolitan, Vulture, The Washington Post and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, and daughter.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin