Abbott Elementary, Disney Plus/Hulu review — witty mockumentary enters the classroom

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As the principal of a school filled with underpaid and half-fried teachers, kids capable of “psychological warfare” and maintenance issues ranging from flickering lights to pungent walls and escaped snakes, Ava Coleman (Janelle James) would do well not to draw attention to her shortcomings. But the headmistress is bullish about the publicity that a documentary might generate. “No press is bad press — look at Mel Gibson,” she tells her unconvinced staff.

Abbott Elementary, a delightful single-cam sitcom streaming on Disney Plus, brings the mockumentary into the teachers’ lounge and classrooms of a Philadelphia public school. Though it probably goes without saying that the apotheosis of the format was reached 20 years ago with The Office (or four decades ago with This Is Spinal Tap), this is a diligent student of its comedic forebears. It may not be groundbreaking or iconoclastic, but there’s something to be said for mastering the ABCs of witty yet easily digestible comedy.

While Ava’s camera-mugging megalomania is readily comparable to David Brent (or Michael Scott, for those more au fait with the American Office), she’s more of a scene-stealer than the centre of the show. Instead, the terrific ensemble is led by rookie teacher Janine (played by the series creator Quinta Brunson). Despite the demands of the job and the principal’s low-level corruption, Janine’s childlike enthusiasm for her job is undimmed. Now entering her second year at Abbott, she sets about making things better — from replacing a soiled rug to bringing in a resident artist — with varying degrees of success.

Formidable old-hand Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph) meanwhile believes in making the best of what’s available. Quick to a biting put-down, she also helps taciturn new hire Gregory deal with difficult students and their equally truculent parents. He’s played by Tyler James Williams, who surely owes Martin Freeman some royalties for his frequent bewildered looks to camera. Rounding off the group is achingly uncool hipster Jacob (Chris Perfetti) and fiftysomething Melissa (Lisa Ann Walter), whose gruff exterior conceals that she’s soft as Philadelphia cream cheese inside.

Each of these characters have readily identifiable personalities but the series is careful not to indulge stereotypes or cheap laughs. The tone is warm rather than riotous and the humour cynical rather than coruscating. The cringe factor may make you squirm but it’s not going to make you flay your own skin with embarrassment.

For all the sharp, referential dialogue, cut-scenes and unexpected, throwaway gags, Abbott Elementary disarmingly succeeds in reminding us of the value of dedicated teachers who care for their students even when their own employers don’t care for them. “We are social workers. We are therapists. We are second parents,” Barbara says at one point. It may not be the funniest line of the show, but it’s perhaps the truest.

★★★★☆

On Disney Plus in the UK and on Hulu and abc.com in the US now

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