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Heard about the new show that’s singlehandedly reviving the sitcom — and happens to be based in Philly? Whether you’re caught up on Abbott Elementary or planning a weekend binge, we’ve got a guide to the characters that have people cracking up.
Set in a fictional South Philadelphia elementary school down the block from the Linc, Abbott Elementary’s cast faces a very familiar set of problems: aging school facilities, chronic underfunding, and leadership that fails to see or address the problems.
In one episode, a teacher tapes photos of recent presidents into an outdated history book. In another, teachers create viral videos to spur donations of school supplies not provided by the district.
Creator and star Quinta Brunson said the show is inspired by her mom, who was a Philly schoolteacher. Another Easter egg: Brunson initially wanted to title the show after her own elementary school, Southwest Philly’s Mastery Charter Harrity Elementary, but after running into legal trouble opted to pay homage to her beloved sixth grade teacher, Ms. Abbott.
“I wanted to make a show about Philadelphia public school because it seemed like it had so much life in it,” Brunson told 6ABC ahead of the show’s premiere.
Critics, teachers, hard-to-please Philadelphians, and even City Council all agree: there’s a lot to love about Abbott Elementary, which is midway through its first season. The show has quadrupled in rating since its December premiere, garnering over 7 million viewers in a little more than a month.
It has the spirit of a mid-2000s network comedy, with a strong ensemble cast, lots of subtle fourth wall breaks a-la “The Office” (another set-in-Pennsylvania show), and the slowest of slow burn romances between a shy substitute teacher and a co-worker with a boyfriend.
Brunson’s character teaches phonics lessons with local slang like jawn and oldhead, while another brings in a South Philly native to talk about a 20-day strike of municipal workers in the 1980s.
The Philly native comedian’s writing is also critical of the school district she loves, mirroring current teacher shortages, funding issues, and ailing buildings. The show peels back the veneer on public education gently, swapping hyperbole for deadpan jokes.
To catch you up, here’s a breakdown of the main characters.
Janine Teagues, 2nd grade teacher
Janine Teagues is a second year second-grade teacher at Abbott who, against all odds, remains unjaded by all the school lacks. She’s plucky and optimistic, with the awkwardly enthusiastic energy of a high school theater kiChris Perd.
Ms. Teagues strives to make sure her students have enough to learn and grow. Case in point: When the principal refuses to replace her classroom’s storytime rug (which is “like Xanax for little kids”), she writes an impassioned email to the school superintendent — only for the email to be ignored and bounce back to her boss’ inbox, landing her in hot water.
In a lot of ways, Ms. Teague’s character is the most staunch critic of the system she works within, even if she is the most happy-go-lucky. Always asking why her principal — or by extension, the fictionalized School District of Philadelphia — can’t provide, she forces viewers to consider the actions of their own urban school leadership.
Barbara Howard, kindergarten teacher
(Sheryl Lee Ralph)
Barbara Howard is the foil to Ms. Teagues. A veteran kindergarten teacher, Ms. Howard runs an orderly classroom and takes pride in being able to teach — and teach well — without asking for help.
Along with the persistent dearth of resources, one of Abbott Elementary’s most striking motifs is the generational divide between these two. Ms. Howard is self-assured, thrifty, and knows the school district will never provide for her students. Meanwhile, Ms. Teagues is still learning how all of those things fit together. Ms. Howard is basically her idol.
Though she’s the show’s most serious figure, Ms. Howard is quick with a clapback. She’s also perceptive, often offering each younger teacher a dose of tough love.
(Real life side note: Actor Sheryl Lee Ralph is married to Philly state Sen. Vincent Hughes.)
Jacob Hill, history teacher
Jacob Hill is the only other second year teacher at Abbott, so he’s by default trauma-bonded to Ms. Teagues. Mr. Hill is a history teacher and professional well-meaning white man: He quotes White Fragility, has a clunky knowledge of civil rights, and tries really hard to let his co-workers know he’s cool.
Mr. Hill is earnest to a fault, and — like Ms. Teagues — doesn’t exactly know when to give up. He’s funny because he tries so hard not to be, and often ends up backed into avoidable situations, like letting his class roast him.
Melissa Schemmenti, 2nd grade teacher
(Lisa Ann Walter)
The entirety of South Philly culture is subsumed into Melissa Schemmenti. Another second grade teacher, she embodies a whole raft of local tropes as an Italian American who takes no shit, and always knows a guy who knows a guy.
Like Ms. Howard, Ms. Schemmenti also takes pride in being self-reliant, only she’s a little more unorthodox about it. An example: When the principal wouldn’t replace storytime rugs, Ms. Schemmenti baked a ziti to convince a friend working construction on the Linc to steal Eagles rugs for Abbott’s students.
Ms. Schemmenti’s experiences also hammer home that Abbott Elementary isn’t sanitizing the Philly experience. The show’s fourth episode contains a powerful subplot where Ms. Schemmenti hijacks Mr. Hill’s lesson on unions after she believes he keeps glossing over the city’s real grit.
Gregory Eddie, substitute teacher
(Tyler James Williams)
Gregory Eddie was supposed to be Abbott’s new principal, the storyline goes, but instead moonlights as a substitute, hired after an Abbott teacher kicked a student. He seems to be warming to the job, even if he initially viewed his classroom as a pitstop to an administrative position.
Also, Mr. Eddie obviously has a big crush on Ms. Teagues — but is too shy to do anything meaningful about it aside from asking her to hang out after school. He casts lots of sidelong glances at her, and the camera. Their chemistry is clear from the pilot, and if Abbott Elementary gets renewed (and The Office is any predictor), they’re going to flirt ad nauseam.
Ava Coleman, principal
Ava Coleman wasn’t supposed to be Abbott’s new principal. But she is, after she blackmailed her way in after finding out her predecessor was sleeping with her church’s deaconess.
Principal Coleman is unqualified, mean-spirited, and deeply self-centered, but will probably never get fired. Her true passion is creating high production viral videos and receiving praise, even if it often comes from herself.
Principal Coleman’s over-the-top antics inject a bit of humor into the skewed power dynamics between principals and teachers, which has found renewed focus as real school districts face strikes and shortages.
You can watch Abbott Elementary 9 p.m. Tuesdays on ABC, or stream on Hulu and Amazon.