I can’t remember the start of a school year, conjuring strong emotions of excitement and a fresh start. Quite the opposite, actually – I’ve always dreaded the start of school. All my new-year energy was fueled by the deep-rooted anxiety of someone who’s had to adapt to a new school quite a few times. Eventually, the fall semester became about survival for me. This is how ABC’s endlessly outstanding Abbott Elementary got me to revisit my negative associations with back-to-school memories and replace them with more hopeful ones. Changes may be challenging, but they can also be rewarding – like learning the simple, difficult lesson that they’re necessary and part of life.
Coming off a hit freshman season and three Emmy statues, including Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series for its creator and lead actress Quinta Brunson, Abbott Elementary Season 2 begins with hints of more success. If there’s one thing Abbott Elementary gets right, it’s balancing feel-good vibes with fidelity to its characters and their setting. The struggles of underfunded, overworked teachers in the Philadelphia public school system are still the show’s beating heart. A lone triumph over the school board in Season 1 didn’t solve the school’s significant structural issues. Bunson and her writer’s room acknowledge the unfortunate reality that while Abbott Elementary is about good people trying to make good things happen, it’s an uphill battle – one that extends farther than the teachers can handle. As Tyler James Williams‘ Gregory Eddie remarks, they do what they can.
Yet despite overworked teachers and faulty desks, the show gives us a genuine interpersonal discussion. How does one deal with change, both professionally and personally? Well, for Abbott Elementary Season 2, change comes knocking at everyone’s door. Janine Teagues’ sunny disposition and optimistic personality get reassessed in a new light, one that doesn’t outshine her core values and character makeup, but that humanizes her. After breaking up with her high school sweetheart Tariq (Zack Fox), Janine is left to figure out her identity beyond that long, long relationship. More importantly, she’s left with bills she can’t pay and the emotional vacuum of losing someone who’s been a pillar of safety for her. Change may be necessary, but it’s also scary as hell. And there’s no predicting the loneliness that creeps in while it’s taking place.
Elsewhere, Melissa Schemmenti (Lisa Ann Walter) senses a more challenging school year ahead as she’s forced to take ten extra students from different grades. Despite her tough exterior, Melissa is a committed teacher through and through. Protective and caring, she shoulders the burden of all the new kids because she knows they have nowhere else to go. At least, no place where they’ll be cared for. It will be interesting, to say the least, to watch Melissa figure out her expanded role (and perhaps even learn to ask for help after she initially rejected extra aid for her classroom).
The care and attention Abbott Elementary gives each character are vital to its success and remain rare in ensemble comedies. We’ve all seen plenty of network sitcoms respond to a successful debut season by under-using or outright sidelining some characters. (Ted Lasso, I love you, but you did Rebecca so dirty in Season 2.) Not so for Abbott Elementary. To give one example: Gregory, now a full-time teacher, gets sent down a tightly coiled emotional spiral in true perfectionist fashion: by crafting classroom seating charts so obscenely well-organized they rival the geopolitical intrigues smoothed over by the chess-match placements of a state dinner. Stopping Gregory from descending fully into the pit of madness is Abbott Elementary‘s rock – Barbara Howard, played by Emmy-winning legend Sheryl Lee Ralph. A buoy for new teachers like Greg, Mrs. Howard’s role as one of the most over-extended, beloved educators at Abbott honors the legacy of countless real-world teachers like her.
Living up to expectations after a breakthrough as big as Abbott’s first season is always a tall order. Even more than a big hit for ABC, the show is also being hailed as a promising template for network TV after years of creative domination by cable and premium outlets. It’s also a small, if prominent, bullhorn for educators in a country where they’re afterthoughts. If the first episodes available for review are any indication, Abbott Elementary Season 2 looks to surpass even the loftiest expectations and continue to bring nuance to its genre by respecting education and underrepresented communities.