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.
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.