Abbott Elementary

August 10, 2023

Abbott Elementary, the ABC sitcom from creator, writer and star Quinta Brunson, has struck a chord with both audiences and critics. With wins at the AFI Awards, Golden Globes, Film Independent Spirit Awards, and Emmys,

it is a mockumentary show about a group of passionate, public education teachers in Philadelphia that has gained in popularity throughout its first two seasons. For editors Richie Edelson and Sarah Zeitlin, Abbott Elementary has been a dream project to cut. “Between Quinta’s writing and acting, she just has it.

She has that special quality where she just kills it in every aspect of everything she does,” says Edelson, who is also an associate producer on the show. Multihyphenate Brunson’s series explores the U.S. public education system in an empathetic way while providing both hilarious situational workplace comedy and a commentary on low income public schools. For Zeitlin, the show spoke to her personal experience. “I just fell in love immediately. It was so real. I come from public schools. It was so truthful to growing up and so respectful of the teachers and the way that they were presented. It just drew me in immediately.” And the atmosphere that Brunson and director Randall Einhorn have built, whileshooting the show on the Warner Bros. lot, is very  collaborative.

“Our post offices are right in the same offices as production. We’re right by the [sound] stages so everybody is interacting with each other. It’s just a good group of people. People know each other in different departments,” Edelson explains. “For me, that’s my favorite way to work because it is just a fertile environment for collaboration and creativity. You can run something by one of the writers because you’re right there. It is sort of like a big family.”

This idea of Abbott Elementary’s ‘big family’ on and off screen also extends to the elementary school children portrayed in the series. “They’ve promoted kids up who didn’t have speaking roles because they’re so good,” says Edelson, who cut the pilot and has been with the series since its first season. “To be honest, I was a little worried when I took the pilot because working with kids is always a challenge. But we have got the most incredible group of kids and ADs who are wrangling them.

[The kids] add such a great texture and a whole different layer too. It doesn’t feel like it’s background. They’re active in the scenes. They’re giving you great reactions and the kids who do have lines are nine times out of 10 nailing them.” Zeitlin, who came aboard the show at the start of Season 2, interjects that the continuity with the kids has been present since the inception of the show.

“I would say there is a loyalty to the kids. They’ll have noticed that a person is strong in the background and they’re paying
attention. So in this episode, we’ll give them more to do. Even the kids from the first season are back. The kindergarteners are now in first grade. There is a relationship with the kids in the class and then it becomes a relationship with the actors. It’s so sweet. It’s unbelievably sweet.”

For the Abbott Elementary editors, they describe their dailies as an “embarrassment of riches” because the chemistry between the actors and writers is so good. “Improv actually doesn’t play as much of a role as you would think. It’s so funny because everyone always thinks that. But the fact is the writing is so good. We have a strong team of writers.

The bulk of it is scripted,” says Edelson. “Sometimes I will think something was a pretty funny improv and then I’ll go back and realize it was just a scripted alt. The writers had just pitched something on the day.” The comedy and dialogue is only enhanced by the character development. A principal relationship developed throughout the show is between two devoted teachers – Janine (Brunson) and Gregory (Tyler James Williams) – who also have a budding ‘will they or won’t they’ romance.

“I think the interpersonal relationships on the show are another layer and just a really special part of the show. It’s another reason why I think people are connecting with it. These are things that anybody can relate to – having your heart broken and not connecting with your family members,” explains Edelson. He draws from his own personal experiences when crafting performance. “Going back to the relationship between Gregory and Janine, I think that’s something you can pull from your own romantic relationships. I feel like I
brought that in when I’m working on that material. You have your own experiences in those situations with people that you’ve had crushes on or people that you have been friends with but thought this should be more, could be more.”

A relatable network television show about the relationships within a school of underserved kids and teachers feels especially timely given both the stress of learning during the pandemic and racial tension within the country. As the critics have posed, one of the reasons that Abbott Elementary is great is that kids, even from a dominantly African-American public school in Philadelphia, get to be kids. Edelson comments,

“The [school’s] funding is an issue and they don’t have everything they need to make everything work, but it’s showing a different side than you usually see on television. I think the point is to bring the joy of the classroom, seeing kids be kids, as opposed to trying to make it into this trope.” Zeitlin chimes in, “They have good days. They have bad days. It’s universal.

We’re living with them in their day to day.” At the surface, Abbott Elementary seems like just a workplace comedy, but its enduring quality is to inspire and talk about issue subtextually, and has earned the series a renewal for Season 3.

As editor Edelson reflects, the show is about posing questions to the audience through the vehicle of comedy. “It sounds a little cliche, but I want [the audience] to walk away having something to think about or to talk about like the state of public education in the country or are charter schools hurting the chances of regular public schools? … We’re not talking about it outright but it’s under this guise of comedy and emotion. So it’s couched in something that feels comfortable, but you also walk away with things to talk about and things to think about.” At the heart of the show’s creation is an empathy for teachers. “Just make [teachers] real. Show how three-dimensional they are. Show how they deserve to be appreciated for the job they do.” Zeitlin continues,

“ [Abbott Elementary] was created by somebody who came from public schools. Coming out of these public schools, you can be
 anything. You can grow up to be Quinta Brunson.” It’s very clear that the magic behind Abbott Elementary lies in the talented team of editors, actors, craftspeople and writers that look to Brunson, who has created a unique work culture.

She has created a special show and a special place to come to work each day. “She is so present. She’s paying attention. Nothing is getting by her,” Zeitlin asserts. “She is kind and encouraging. She’s not Janine, but she’s exactly who you want her to be. She so understands what’s meaningful to her and her instincts for comedy are amazing. … When I get to edit her scenes, it’s so fun because I’m having a good time. They’re paying me for this!”



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