As we prepare for the 29th Screen Actors Guild Awards, Backstage is breaking down this year’s film and television ensemble nominees for your consideration.
Main Cast: Quinta Brunson, Janelle James, Chris Perfetti, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Lisa Ann Walter, Tyler James Williams
Casting by: Wendy O’Brien
Created by: Quinta Brunson
Distributed by: ABC
Actors have a tendency to bashfully dismiss their contributions to a project by saying, “It’s all there on the page.” But it takes nothing away from the writers of “Abbott Elementary” for the show’s performers to reply, “Not quite.” The jokes and beats are there in the scripts, sure; but the heart? That comes from an ensemble of players so finely attuned to their characters—and to one another—that they turn silliness into poetry and make threadbare plots feel fresh.
Led by creator-star Quinta Brunson, the ABC hit features a deep bench of talent—including Sheryl Lee Ralph, Lisa Ann Walter, Chris Perfetti, Tyler James Williams, and Janelle James—all playing off each other with precision. It’s no surprise that Brunson and Ralph both took home Emmy gold earlier this year.
The show kicks off when attention-hungry principal Ava Coleman (James) allows a documentary crew into her Philadelphia school in hopes of boosting her own social media presence. The show blends over-the-top moments with quieter ones that honor the struggles public school employees face daily. Earnest but never melodramatic (the characters’ straight-to-camera reaction shots take care of that), “Abbott Elementary” is a reminder of the pleasures of the 22-minute sitcom.
The true mark of a great comedic ensemble is how well each character can pair with any other; and on that score, “Abbott Elementary” is strong right out of the gate. The series quickly establishes the default positions of its characters: Young idealists Janine Teagues (Brunson) and Jacob Hill (Chris Perfetti) flail in the face of an uncaring system; veteran teachers Barbara Howard (Ralph) and Melissa Schemmenti (Walter) move in lockstep; Ava wreaks general havoc; and substitute teacher Gregory Eddie (Williams) watches it all unfold in mute shock.
Credit: ABC/Christopher Willard
Once the show lays that groundwork, it delights in exploring variations. Watching Jacob’s puppyish eagerness breach Barbara’s defenses as they plant a school garden together is both funny and character-building; he positively blossoms under her hard-won praise. And since Ralph has so clearly established who Barbara is, it’s a blast to watch her react to Janine’s enthusiasm when she gets carried away by a grandiose scheme.
Janine and Jacob are idealists who stubbornly believe in the power of good intentions; but Ava is the rocky shore that the two young teachers’ big dreams are in danger of smashing against. So it’s hilarious—and rewarding—when Janine and Ava find common ground. Both women approach their jobs from different places, but they come to share a mutual respect.
Walter is a formidable presence as hardcore Philly native Melissa, whether she’s dressing up as Scarlet Witch or cutting the sweetness by about three-quarters with a well-timed side-eye. Williams makes Gregory’s infatuation with Janine into something touching, even as he struggles to maintain control of his students. This combination of earnestness and satire doesn’t always work on paper, but the cast makes the characters so grounded that Brunson and the writers can indulge in flights of fancy without tipping into the ludicrous.
“Abbott Elementary” is an ode to the power of teamwork (for both its characters and its performers), and it’s become the kind of cultural phenomenon we’d all but given up on expecting from a network sitcom.
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