Tyler James Williams and Janelle James
“I am just so happy to be back!” Janine Teagues (Quinta Brunson) squeals in the opening scene of Abbott Elementary’s second season. Janine is excited to get into the classroom again and prove she has it all together this year (and for her colleagues to notice she parted her hair on the other side), but I imagine Brunson is also thrilled to be back: After an historic three Emmy nominations, she nabbed her first win (Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series for the pilot), while the show picked up two more statues.
It’s well-established that a sitcom takes time to find its footing. Go back and rewatch the first seasons of Parks And Recreation or The Office and you’ll see that things feel a little off compared to the comedic timings and dynamic chemistries they became known for. Thanks to Brunson’s clear vision and specificity as a Philly local, though, Abbott Elementary showed a rare confidence in its first outing. And it’s exciting to think that with time and development, the show is going to become even funnier and deeper as it goes on. The good news: The laughs came more frequently in the back half of season one, and this season-two premiere doesn’t skip a beat.
We pick up with the gang on the titular “Development Day,” with the teachers returning from summer break to prepare their classrooms before the students arrive. Janine assures the audience and her colleagues that she “fast-tracked” her breakup with Tariq (Zach Fox), which is basically Chekhov’s “Janine is going to have a meltdown” for the episode. This year is going to be different! But when she gets to school and tries to park, she finds that Ava (Janelle James) has commandeered the parking lot to charge Eagles fans to tailgate. So…not that different.
We get a quick rundown of what everyone did for the summer: Jacob (Chris Perfetti) taught abroad in Peru and took an ASL class (“I wasn’t inspired by CODA, per se, but…”); Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph–also an Emmy winner) lost her shoes on an all-inclusive cruise while extremely inebriated (“Sea Barbara is different than Land Barbara”); Melissa (Lisa Ann Walter) was down on the Jersey shore with Gary the vending machine guy; and Gregory (Tyler James Williams) dove into the first-grade curriculum since he’s now a full-time teacher.
During her morning address in the gym, Ava throws a few summer thirst traps of herself up on the screen for Gregory’s benefit before sharing the agenda for the day. Janine has planned a teacher’s mixer, and when she mentions her “wisdom swap” idea, Barbara and Melissa are quick to tell her it won’t work. She starts to argue but then stops herself—“I don’t have to change your minds, because it’s mandatory”— in a show of confidence that impresses the veteran teachers. Between that and the reveal that she’s snagged “the only celebrity that matters” to surprise the kids on the first day of school (Gritty, the terrifying Flyers mascot), Janine is stepping up. “Looks like somebody got it together this year,” Barbara mutters to Melissa.
The team is quickly bogged down in the administrative nightmares of the public-school system. Although Barbara succeeded in getting a ramp installed at the school, she’s getting the runaround from the district about an accessible desk for her upcoming student who uses a wheelchair. Melissa, poor soul, is now a combined second and third grade teacher with ten extra students because there weren’t enough kids to justify another class.
Sheryl Lee Ralph
But no one is freaking out like Gregory, who can’t believe how much material the school-board-mandated curriculum expects first graders to learn in a year. He maps out everything in a very detailed schedule on his white board, with headshots of each of his kids fixed to their desks. His classroom isn’t as bad as John Nash’s office in A Beautiful Mind, but it has similar vibes.
And as for sweet Janine, the preordained meltdown comes to mess up her hot streak, right on schedule. As she and Jacob brainstorm an icebreaker for her mixer, he sees threatening emails from her landlord because she’s three months behind on rent now that Tariq is out of the picture. Janine brushes off Jacob’s concern, but right in the middle of her mixer, Mr. Johnson (William Stanford Davis) comes to inform the group that her car is getting a boot for unpaid parking tickets. (They were Tariq’s, and she used to pay them, but “in an act of maturity, I haven’t since we split.”) And of course, as she fails to plead her way out of that mess, Gritty shows up because she accidentally told him to come on development day instead of the first day of school. Oops.
Her image of having it all together shattered, Janine gets some heart-to-heart advice from Barbara and Melissa: You have to go through a breakup, not over it. Healing is part of the process.
Janine ruminates on this as we see the teachers welcoming students for the first day. It’s a beautiful sequence that reinforces Abbott Elementary’s beating heart. Forget the jokes about Jacob’s try-hard obsession with ASL. Seeing him sign with a deaf student is genuinely moving. Barbara wheels her new student into her classroom only to discover that Gregory found an ADA-compliant desk in storage. Threading the needle between heart and humor isn’t easy, but Abbott Elementary is at the top of the class.
“This year’s going to be different…because the Eagles got A.J. Brown, baby!” says Mr. Johnson as he joins Ava’s parking lot tailgate. (He’s off to a good start!)
It’s nice to see Ava is still Ava, despite growing closer to the staff at the end of last season. “Be silent in the presence of greatness,” she says to quiet them in the gym.
Last year he didn’t like pizza, this year he doesn’t “get” Gritty. Gregory isn’t afraid to have controversial opinions. (Gritty wins him over with a very Gritty exchange in the post-credit scene.)
The Philly-specific humor is always good, like when Jacob is desperate to know if Gritty’s phone number is area code 215 or 267.
Chris Perfetti is just a delight as Jacob. I laughed out loud at his delivery of “President Joey B is going to cancel the rest of that debt like any day now.” And as we get to know the character better, his exchanges become even more hilarious. Barbara’s initial panic to his claim of having an emergency and then immediately leaving once he turns a chair around to sit down was perfection. “I’m not playing with that boy this year.”
Mr. Johnson: “Anybody drive a beat-up sedan?” Hand raises from everyone in a room full of teachers.
With Gregory teaching first grade, he and Barbara will likely interact a lot, which is good news for us because Tyler James Williams and Sheryl Lee Ralph do beautiful scene work together. She pulls him out of his panic with both toughness and warmth.
Will they, won’t they watch: Despite saying things with Barbara’s daughter, Taylor, are going fine, Gregory was the only one to notice Janine’s part change at the end of the episode.