Taking ‘Abbott Elementary’ to school

It’s been a long time since I was a TV critic (Daily News, 1980-’85), but I like to follow the “art” form, and I especially like to keep eye on shows with a Philly slant.

Sheryl Lee Ralph (left) and Quinta Brunson

I did that with “Mare of Easttown” and wasn’t particularly impressed. More social media commentary concerned the Delco ahksent  than the ridiculous plotting. I summarized it as a “show that could be titled ‘White Trash of Southeast Pennsylvania.’”

It starred Big Time star Kate Winslet playing a frumpy, foul-mouthed police detective. Frump may be her future. 

Last Wednesday at 9:30, “Abbott Elementary” premiered on ABC and got off to a good start. It will return in January as a midseason replacement.

It’s a workplace comedy, think of “The Office,” done in mockumentary style, meaning characters break the wall and sometimes address viewers directly. In this case, the workplace is a Philadelphia elementary school, which means the kids are predominantly Black, the school is underfunded, and the teachers are frazzled. 

The creator and star is Philadelphian Quinta Brunson, whose mother was a Philadelphia school teacher. Brunson plays Janine, a newly-minted teacher who hero-worships veteran, friendly-grumpy Barbara, played by Philadelphian-by-marriage Sheryl Lee Ralph. (Her husband is state Sen. Vincent Hughes, who was born under a lucky star. Ralph was one of the original stage “Dreamgirls,” and I met her in Philly during that road run.)

The plot made sense, the characters were well delineated, there were laughs, but I want to make a point by focusing on a couple of other characters.

One of the other teachers, Melissa, played by Lisa Ann Walter, wears leather moto jackets and is clearly a South Philadelphia Italian. Jacob, played by Chris Perfetti, is a weenie white boy.

The only white male in the cast, Jacob is a weak, wimpy, simpy, deferential guy whose maleness has been detoxified.

He is more needy than Janine, and tries too hard — without success — to establish his credibility around Blacks. When he reminds Janine he was a teacher in Zimbabwe, she tells him to drop it. He won’t object to a local shop owner calling him “white boy” because it would seem like “white fragility,” he says.

If the cast were white and he was a Black character seeking fawning approval from whites, Black Lives Matter would shut down the show in a heartbeat.

When being interviewed by a camera crew, Melissa asks the unseen interviewer: “You Sicilian? Italian?,” which established her as Italian.

When she asks, “You from South?,” that’s a clunker.

She means South Philadelphia.

No one says “South” any more than they say “North” for North Philadelphia.

Melissa “knows guys” (meaning the mob) and winds up “requesitioning” some area rugs for classroom use from a nearby worksite.

The show stereotypes an Italian character as being in or near the mob.

Am I outraged? Of course not, because stereotypes are a staple of comedy. So when other stereotypes are used, we shouldn’t, to quote Bart Simpson, have a cow.

Yes, it is safer when TV makes fun of the majority rather than the minority.

And we white boys can take it. So can fathers, with few exceptions portrayed as idiots.
When other feel offended, it’s a good idea to take a deep breath and remember that Hollywood, as woke as it pretends to be, will do almost anything for a laugh.

10 thoughts on “Taking ‘Abbott Elementary’ to school”

  1. When “Rocky” briefly became a Broadway musical, the boxer was said to come from “Southside”
    Philadelphia. Sacrilege!
    First of all (as you certainly know), no one calls South Philly “Southside”, and Rocky is from Kensington— Tusculum Street, to be exact.

    OK–“Abbot Elementary” is a sitcom, not a documentary. But, as someone who works to make
    history entertaining, I know that it doesn’t take much effort to get the details right and still get the
    audience’s attention.
    A cast and crew like this should know better.

    1. The writer of the episode is from West Philadelphia — as she herself calls it, so sh KNOWS there is no “South” in Philadelphia. I don’t know how/why that got into the script.

  2. Stu, great commentary, and as a white Irish-American I agree that for the most part we should all (majority and minority included) let comedic stereotyping roll off of our backs (e.g. I don’t get offended by every representation of Irish-Americans as drunks or cops… heck, I know a lot of those guys!)

    One stereotype that DOES stick in my craw, because I think it is so harmful, is the stereotype that all husbands and fathers are doofuses who wouldn’t know the time of day if it weren’t for their long-suffering, intelligent, and beautiful wives. This common trope shows men who have kids and marry the mothers of their children (exactly what we want men to do) as unfit to be fathers (left alone with the kids? Let’s pray the kids make it out alive!) and unfit to lead families (you’re better off just saying yes dear so you can get back to watching “the big game” in your basement with your best friend who is equally clueless).

    This sterotype is not only untrue, it is harmful. How many people decry the lack of men taking responsibility for their families and children? This sterotyping (which only appeared on TV and in movies starting in the late 80s) is making men under a certain age think that’s the way they are SUPPOSED to act. That’s why many of my male friends in their 30s and 40s talk about wanting a “man cave” where their wives will “allow” them to keep that neon bar light and set up a big screen tv. They say things like “I have to check with the boss” (meaning their wives) when faced with a question about their kids. And it’s why men handover their paychecks and say things like “I’ll have to check with the wife” when you ask them if they want to do something that requires an outlay of more than $25.

    This type of sterotype is particularly bad because it’s present in almost every kids’ movie and TV show – it makes kids think that’s the way men really are and are supposed to be. (Imagine if every movie featured a clueless mom who didn’t know how to make dinner without burning it, didn’t know how to handle money, and had a husband who knowingly smiled as he fixed all of her mistakes as she went through her day).

  3. Does the TV show have the metal detectors at the doors of the school? That is my best memory of visiting Philadelphia schools as a businessman.

  4. I am considering posting this at the end of the week and in some ways it reflects my thinking of how the black community continues to suffer from victimization as written about by professor Thomas Sowell. If you seek greater recognition and respectability just the same as any other culture then place your best anti-bias foot forward.
    A bust of George Floyd is expected to generate an auction bid of between 100 and 300 thousand dollars in New York. Although the death of any human being especially at the hands of a rogue police officer is tragic. The problem that I want to address is the choice of hero-worship placed on a criminal as a martyr with 23 arrests and honored with eternal praise and have it taught in school. George Floyd may have been a victim of police misconduct but his life before that date was one of crime, drugs, spousal abuse, and a criminal to all who knew him. As a historic event, it has recognition but along with professor Shelby Steele and Candice Owens, I believe that he should not be beatified in the eyes of young black schoolchildren. On that same date, the following lady died and there was no media coverage given to her life. My point is that she is a real heroin to be shown to black and white school children to imitate rather than a man who was the worst example of black success. Here is just a small part of her life.
    Madam C.J. Walker’s Early Life
    Madam C.J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867, and died on the same date as Floyd- May 25. Her parents, Owen and Minerva, were Louisiana sharecroppers who had been born into slavery. Sarah, their fifth child, was the first in her family to be born free after the Emancipation Proclamation. Her early life was marked by hardship; she was orphaned at six, married at fourteen she had a daughter, and became a widow at twenty.
    Madam C. J. Walker was “the first Black woman millionaire in America” and made her fortune thanks to her homemade line of hair care products for Black women. Born Sarah Breedlove to parents who had been enslaved, she was a talented entrepreneur with a knack for self-promotion, Walker built a business empire, at first selling products directly to Black women, then employing “beauty culturalists” to hand-sell her wares. She had a reputation for philanthropy. She established clubs for her employees, encouraging them to give back to their communities and rewarding them with bonuses when they did. At a time when jobs for Black women were fairly limited, she promoted female talent, even stipulating in her company’s charter that only a woman could serve as president. She donated generously to educational causes and Black charities, funding scholarships for women at Tuskegee Institute and donating to dozens of other organizations that helped make Black history.
    So the question to all who jump on bandwagons without facts or minimum research I respect you’re having a bust of Floyd sculptured but I along with many refrain from making George Floyd a hero of any community.

  5. As someone who has been subjected to harassment in the workplace and disparaging comments by friends, I do take offense to negative stereotypes. Italian Americans are the last “safe” group to openingly put down. To the Irish American poster who wasn’t offended by negative stereotyping of the Irish- I am half Irish American. I’ve yet to experience the same treatment. In fact, when I’ve confronted those who put my mother’s ethnicity down, they were fast to point out how much they admired Irish culture… There are much fewer Irish negative stereotypes. In this PC, most groups are being given respect.

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