How Abbott Elementary Made the A-Grade

From Women’s History Month 2023 Issue
Quinta Brunson on Abbott Elementary. PHOTO: ABC
Quinta Brunson on Abbott Elementary. PHOTO: ABC

Within the hallowed halls of a fictional elementary school lie the ingredients that compose what sitcom dreams are made of. A romance that burns at a tantalizing pace, sharp humor that remains relevant despite its timeless nature, and a beating heart that swells more and more with each episode.  Abbott Elementary demonstrates that to strike sitcom gold, a show must be able to harness both tradition and innovation and encourage them to work in tandem. Abbott Elementary’s origins mirror those of most modern shows. The idea was developed in an incubated community for several years and then shopped around for distribution. The only difference in this instance was Quinta Brunson, a 33-year-old media industry veteran at the helm.

After years of finding success on the internet with her work with Buzzfeed and her original web series, Bruson was ready to step into the limelight with an idea inspired by her mother’s decade-long career teaching in the Philadelphia Public School System. 

In a 2022 interview with The Today Show, Brunson said, “I thought there was something really significant about going into teachers’ lives in a real way. Not in a jokey way that starts with our perceived comedy impression of them,” adding “These are real people who are choosing, most times, to do the most underpaid job in the world, and our show investigates what makes up that kind of person.” The show found its home at ABC, a network notorious for producing some of the most popular sitcoms from past decades, Modern Family, Black-ish, and The Goldbergs.

All shows garnered the attention and adoration of the masses. Brunson is the network’s second black female showrunner, with Shonda Rhimes as her only peer. During the early stages of the show’s development, Brunson remained detail-oriented and committed to creating a show that reflected all the things she loved about the network television she grew up watching. When it came time to cast her beloved characters, she was unwilling to compromise for potential perks. When speaking to Deadline about the process of casting the role of Principle Ava Coleman, Brunson said, “I was like, we need to go with the right person. So that wound up being Janelle (James), which I think to ABC, they were like, “Oh, we don’t know them.” And I’m like, “I don’t care. I just don’t care. She is it, and I know she’s it.” And that was like the extent of the fight. They kind of backed off. Because I think that they knew it too that she was good.” 

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The show found its stride, casting beloved faces in ways unlike we’ve ever seen them before: Sheryl Lee Ralph, Lisa Ann Walter, and Tyler James Williams. Actors known for their roles in the original Broadway productions of Dreamgirls, The Parent Trap, and Everybody Hates Chris. In these new roles, the actors got the opportunity to reintroduce themselves and their talents to the masses. Tyler James Williams, a child actor who avoided network television, was excited about the opportunity to work on Abbott. Williams told Bustle, “I was looking at a bunch of pilots at the time and was like, these are heady, and mmm, that’s smart. But it had no heart to it. And [Abbott Elementary] inherently did.”

With an impressive cast and writers’ room dedicated to highlighting the nuances that exist within education both comically and cautiously, the show quickly rose to success. It secured sky-high ratings, critical acclaim, and a passionate fanbase. Weekly, more than 10 million people watch Abbott Elementary. The show earned a renewal for its third season just weeks into its second one. So far, the show has been honored with more than 30 awards, including a Golden Globe and an Emmy. In recent years, with dramatic shows gaining popularity and acclaim, rumors circulated in the entertainment industry about the death of the traditional sitcom.

After ABC’s Modern Family wrapped after its 11-year run, Bill Keveny wrote for USA Today, “Although TV still has excellent comedies, and new ones will surely bloom, the era of the 200-episode series that becomes a cultural touchstone appears to be over.” By its second episode, Abbott Elementary earned ABC’s highest ratings since Modern Family’s finale. Shows like Abbott Elementary and their peers prove that telling diverse, meaningful stories that remain rooted in authenticity energizes the public. They give families and individuals worldwide a reason to sit down and take the time out of their busy weeks to delve into worlds outside their own and return for more.

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    Mya SpencerOct 12, 2023 at 2:40 pm

    what an amazing show and story!