The season finale of Abbott Elementary aired this past Tuesday, bringing to a close what has wound up being a pitch-perfect first season of television. Typically, shows require a certain period of time to find their footing, especially those in the more limited half-hour format. Many now-highly regarded shows start off with unsteady first seasons (Parks & Recreation, Schitt’s Creek, to name just a few), enough that a new series this confident in its identity so soon is generally considered the exception rather than the rule. Series creator Quinta Brunson, however, carried out her vision with a surety that is matched by few. Brunson, who also stars, has been open about the fact that Abbott Elementary is inspired by her mother, a long-time teacher in the Philadelphia school system, and how so few series concentrate on the lives of the staff that run these schools. The extreme highs and lows that come with the profession make for great mockumentary fodder, something we’re reminded of each time Greg (Tyler James Williams) directs his now-signature stare at the camera.
Not every form of storytelling requires surprise twists and turns to be entertaining. One of the series’ major strengths is the fact that from the beginning Abbott Elementary knew exactly what it was: a group of educators trying to keep a school going with the resources they’re provided. No heavy-handed story beats required to carry out an engaging, quality sitcom. When fellow teacher Jacob (Chris Perfetti) finally permits Janine a glimpse into his personal life, including the fact that he has a boyfriend, there’s no episode-long coming out story attached to it. Just a simple mention of a male partner, a fact that his colleagues absorb with the casualness of discussing one’s dinner menu—maybe less so, considering that a midseason episode contained a subplot in which the staff is scandalized by the discovery that Greg doesn’t like pizza. That’s not to say that Abbott Elementary shies away from serious topics; the overarching theme of episode ten involves Janine’s (Brunson) issues with her mother, which explains her tendency to transpose her desire for a maternal figure on longtime teacher Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph) or the reveal in episode nine that raucous Principal Ava (the hilarious Janelle James) is the primary caregiver for her ailing grandmother. These moments work within the lighthearted tone of the show because they’re never allowed to become self-indulgent. There’s no need to tearfully divulge what it’s like to cope with an absent mother when a close-up of Janine’s screen of unanswered texts will do.
This week’s finale is probably the closest thing to an emotional crisis we’ve experienced thus far, as Janine is forced to choose between the only real romantic relationship she’s ever known (with long-time boyfriend Tariq, played by Zack Fox) and the job/city that she loves. Unsurprisingly, this huge impasse is treated with the same measured restraint granted to other serious moments throughout the season. Any handwringing that Janine engages in stays firmly within the emotional parameters previously laid out by her character’s attributes; her optimistic nature is inclined to fret whenever anything threatens her hopeful vision. But what keeps this inherently dramatic choice (whether to stay or go) contained is a mirrored plot point featuring a timid first-grader named Kenny (Leon Cassimere III) who’s scared of moving on to the next grade. Janine’s successful in her efforts to assure him that change is something to be welcomed and manages to convince herself of the same. Only then does Janine come to the realization that she needs to move on from her stagnant relationship. The show never attempts to act like it isn’t a hard decision (“What did that Kenny kid say to you in the balloon? I knew he wasn’t my dawg”), but it’s gamely accepted and done with an affectionate warmth that one hopes to see when two people who have been together for that long part ways (with one final dance, of course).
We tend to think of change in terms of huge life transitions, but the truth of the matter is that most of the changes that occur within us are almost imperceptible. Days vary little from one to another, but then a sign—Barbara addressing Janine as “Miss Teagues” is, again, so small, yet so emotionally significant—confirms some shift has occurred. Bestowed with that teacherly honorific, it’s no wonder that Janine is able to call upon her newly fortified internal resources to loudly command a rowdy school bus full of children to sit down. Janine isn’t the only character who begins to integrate the subtle changes she’s undergone over the course of the season: Greg only recently decided to make the transition from a substitute teacher to a full-time staff member while making peace with the fact that being a school principal may not be in the cards at the moment. There’s also a parallel subplot that revolves around Barbara’s concern over her relevancy in an ever-changing world, a small crisis assisted by fellow veteran teacher Melissa (Lisa Ann Walter) who insists, “You’ve gotten better with age, like fine wine and Stanley Tucci.” A twenty-two minute long episode manages to convey more engaging character work than plenty of hour-long network dramas, no hitching sobs or hair-pulling required (cough This Is Us cough). All of this can be laid at the feet of the writing staff, especially Brunson, who has all thirteen episodes credited to her name.
With one season down and who knows how many to go (as of last month, the sitcom has been renewed for a second season) it seems that the sky’s the limit for Abbott Elementary. I imagine that it will continue to delight with its unique blend of warmth and humor. But even if something were to change, whether it’s Brunson adapting the material for her own evolving personal expression (as artists are wont to do) or a shakeup to this fantastic cast, in Janine’s words—yes, the one moment delivered with a few bittersweet tears—during those last few minutes of the season: “It’s gonna be great, and I’m going to be fine. We all are.”
The entire first season of Abbott Elementary can be streamed on Hulu.
Kaleena Rivera is the TV Editor for Pajiba. When she isn’t vying for aquariums to now be referred to solely as “water zoos” (Kenny is truly adorable), she can be found on Twitter here.
Header Image Source: Hulu/ABC