For many, September is synonymous with new beginnings — the start of the school year, and the start of fall, reminiscent of a lingering summer heat with an encroaching autumn chill in the air. Lorelai Gilmore’s power grows stronger, Red (Taylor’s Version) sneaks its way onto my playlists just as Solar Power leaves and academic anxiety begins to settle into a comfortable little pit deep within the recesses of my stomach. I hate to contemplate a time in the future when that lingering instinctual excitement might fade, where a year-round 9-to-5 job might make September just a blur on the horizon of months passing by in monotony. But for now, the month holds a special place in my heart, and I’m a sucker for the new hopes and old comforts it inevitably brings.
It seems like this second season start to “Abbott Elementary” had a similar sentiment in mind: each of its characters is eager to begin anew with the school year, and change is on the horizon as they grow into their potential as characters of newly-tenured sitcom status. The second season premiere episode finds the “Abbott” crew back to school for development week and gearing up for the year ahead. Janine (Quinta Brunson, “A Black Lady Sketch Show”) is trying to stay afloat after her break-up with Tariq (Zack Fox, “Pause with Sam Jay”) by doing what she does best: diving into work problems in deflection of her own personal life problems. She claims she’s returned to our screens a changed woman — she’s even changed the side part of her hair — but no one seems to notice or believe her, much to her chagrin. Gregory (Tyler James Williams, “Everybody Hates Chris”) is similarly having a tough time adjusting, in his case from being a substitute to a full-time teacher with a classroom of his own. Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph, “Moesha”) and Melissa (Lisa Ann Walter, “The Parent Trap”) are as consistent (and hilarious) as ever but are facing some new challenges of their own as well.
Within a 20-minute episode we’re brought up to speed on each of their summers and the current work mishap of the week involving the Philadelphia Flyers’s NHL mascot, a fuzzy orange character named Gritty. As always, the real magic of the show happens when it shines a light on the very real issues and challenges educators face on a day to day basis. What sets “Abbott” apart is that it doesn’t just play off the terrible situational comedy of many a teacher’s misfortune for laughs, but dives a bit deeper into the problems themselves. This premiere episode alone manages to touch on a number of such obstacles, like when Gregory discovers that the curriculums for public schools that teachers are expected to follow can be super unreasonable in terms of scope and content and are written by people who have never even set foot in a classroom. Melissa has to take on a combined, overfilled class of second and third graders because of the consequences (and havoc) charter schools wreak upon public schools. Barbara fights tooth and nail just to get an accessible desk for one of her students that uses a wheelchair. Janine, ever the pitiful one of the group, is overworked and underpaid to the point where she’s currently struggling to pay her bills, yet she still arrives to work each day with a can-do attitude that makes her one of the most cheery, good-natured TV protagonists since Leslie Knope. You just can’t help but root for her.
The aftermath of these struggles is precisely where “Abbott” is at its absolute “A for effort” best. Janine returns day after day, Gregory gets Barbara that accessible desk she needs; they make do with what they have, in whatever way they can. It emphasizes something we all know to be fundamentally true, yet fail to acknowledge enough: Schools are only special places because of the people that work within them, the teachers that go against all odds to make a substantial, lasting impact on children simply because it’s the right thing to do. “Abbott” shares that genuine, heartfelt tone with a dynamic, ever-evolving ensemble of characters that are as hilarious as they are heartwarming to watch. Maybe it’s Janine’s infectiously optimistic energy or the way they all look out for each other like a “work family” through and through, but the show is imbued with a charmingly hopeful atmosphere that both recognizes the pitfalls of the public education system and celebrates all of the good being done by educators on- and off-screen.
Perhaps the best mockumentary-style sitcom on the air right now, “Abbott Elementary” is consistently putting out some of the very best work that the TV industry currently has to offer. It nails the sitcom formula episode after episode as we laugh at Jacob (Chris Perfetti, “In the Dark”) more often than we do with him, live for the delivery of Ava’s (Janelle James, “Central Park”) fantastic one-liners (that almost always go viral on Twitter the very next day) and watch Gregory fall even harder for Janine, who will undoubtedly make a fairly adorable pair once she finally realizes it. (In case you were wondering, he was the only person to notice her side part change, because of course he did.) Fresh off of its recent Emmy wins, “Abbott Elementary” returns with a brightly promising, earnest start to what will soon be a familiar favorite in the sitcom hall of fame. Be sure to tune in before Twitter spoils the best of its jokes for you!
Daily Arts Writer Serena Irani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.