Melissa Harris-Perry: Thanks for sticking with The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry and we're about to take you to school, Abbott Elementary School that is.
Now, if you haven't heard about or seen ABC's Abbott Elementary yet, it's a brilliantly written, hilarious mockumentary style sitcom set in a predominantly Black public elementary school in Philadelphia. Just fair warning, we're talking about the latest season so there are spoilers ahead.
Throughout the past two seasons, we watched along as the show skillfully underscores the challenges of teaching in an under-resourced school system while still remaining a lighthearted comedy.
Ava: Hey-yo! What it do, baby-boos? What y'all think about this little film crew I brought in here?
Melissa: Distracting, makes our jobs harder.
Ava: But exciting. We about to be on TV.
Barbara: Because they are covering underfunded, poorly managed public schools in America.
Ava: No press is bad press, Barb. Look at Mel Gibson, still thriving. [laughs] Daddy's Home 2, hilarious.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This season, we were introduced to a new nemesis, the charter school network, Legendary Charter Schools, and the question of whether Abbott will be forced to go charter.
Speaker: Item number seven of next week's school board meeting, a proposal to transition Abbott Elementary into a Legendary Charter School for the 2023/'24 school year.
Speaker: Times New Roman, the most decisive of the fonts.
Speaker: Well, I guess that's it. Draemond goes to the school board, we become charter.
Speaker: This is horrible. I can't be a charter teacher. I don't have the wardrobe for it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Of course, we still have the continuation of the artful slow burn of the will-they-won't-they plot line between the two young teachers, Janine played by Quinta Brunson and Gregory, played by Tyler James Williams. To talk all about the second season, which ended on April 19th, I talked with Jessica Winter, an editor at The New Yorker, who also writes about family and education. Jessica started by telling us why everyone loves Abbott Elementary.
Jessica Winter: It's so many different things. This is a show that is really designed to be enjoyed by anyone of any age. It's highly accessible. It's a network family show. It's a very positive and upbeat show. It doesn't flinch from the challenges that an underfunded public elementary school like Abbott faces, but one constant on the show is that the teachers are almost uniformly super competent and super dedicated to their work. They love their kids. The kids, for the most part, love them back.
It's a loving, friendly show at the same time that it's relentlessly funny and edgy. It's got all these pop cultural references, and sports references, and Philadelphia references, because it's set in Philadelphia and not necessarily everyone is going to get every reference. Sometimes there's slightly spicy humor that might go over the heads of most kids. I watch it every week with my eight-year-old, and for example, she asked me recently what a hall pass is in a dating context. That was an interesting moment to navigate.
This show has so many jokes and so much wordplay and sight gags that if you linger too long over something that passed you by, you're going to miss the next three jokes. It's a generous show, it's bountiful, and it's just a great place to hang out.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We talked with Sheryl Lee Ralph during the first season. I thought, okay, she's going to come on and we're going to talk about the funny show, and she came to take us to school, to task around inequality, around race, around public health. I realized, oh, those involved in it from writers to performers are very serious about the serious messages that they're sending.
Jessica Winter: Yes, absolutely. Creators and show runners from Norman Lear to Shonda Rhimes have taken on big social and political issues on their programs, on sitcoms even. I think that Abbott Elementary is really striking in this respect as well for showing the consequences of underfunding schools, of not serving public schools, of the consequences for families, and children, and teachers as well when public education is neglected.
Of course, those inequities fall the hardest on communities of color, on predominantly Black communities like the one portrayed in Abbott Elementary. It's a serious show and it takes on gravely serious issues. What could be more important than how students, how little kids are educated? It takes those on and faces them down at the same time that it is referring good time and so funny, and it feels good to watch it. That's the miracle of the show, is that it maintains that tension. It works on all of those levels. I really marvel at it week after week.
Melissa Harris-Perry: One of the critical issues that this season took on is charter schools. They introduced this new nemesis, the charter school network, Legendary Schools, which I think-- [unintelligible 00:05:27] the number of charter school networks that we could define as, as kind of nemesis. Talk to me about the approach they took to this.
Jessica Winter: Yes. This topic is at least ostensibly kind of niche. It's not perceived as this big grabby culture wars kind of issue necessarily, but the rise of charter schools and the school choice movement generally is extremely important and it's central to the future of public education in this country. The way that Abbott approached it was in a character called Draemond who’s played by Leslie Odom Jr. of Hamilton fame.
He is a slick suit, someone you don't really trust, but at the same time, he has this sympathetic background. He had a tough family life. He was a kindergarten student of Barbara, played by Sheryl Lee Ralph. I think he says that she was his favorite teacher. Where he really flourished wasn't in a public elementary school, it was in a charter school. Now, he wants to bring the charter school movement to all of Philadelphia. He wants to make Abbott into a charter school.
Abbott Elementary, the show and the teachers on the show have a very clear position on the charter school issue, which is that, in a nutshell, we should be devoting more time and resources and public money to public schools and not to publicly funded but privately accountable institutions such as charter schools, which are often more selective in which students they let in, which are often harsher in expelling students. There's an Abbott Elementary student who goes to a Legendary Charter School and then is kicked out because of low test scores.
Abbott is sympathetic to families who might make these kinds of individual choices. It's even sympathetic to a certain extent with this charter school founder, but where its political position is, it's very strong, it's never in doubt.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Hold on. Is that time for recess just yet? We'll be back with more on Abbott Elementary's second season in just a moment. It's The Takeaway.
You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. We're back and talking about ABC's award-winning sitcom, Abbott Elementary. With us is Jessica Winter, an editor at The New Yorker, who also writes about family and education. We're recapping season two so beware of spoilers ahead.
A major plot line in the second season deals with the tension between Abbott Elementary, an under-resourced public school that serves predominantly Black students, and the Legendary Charter School system, which was trying to take them over. I love the points you're making here about the relationship, the idea that we can see the humanity in the charter school. They don't come in as the altogether bad guy but revealing the ways that these structures end up doing harm.
Jessica Winter: Yes, absolutely. I think what advocates of traditional public schools would say, and I think what Abbott Elementary was putting forth is this essential question, why are we diverting public money from public schools which serve all students? Why, if a public good is breaking down, and Abbott Elementary is very frank about how the school in particular is breaking down in certain ways. We see the asbestos falling out of the walls for goodness sake. Why wouldn't we work hard to build it back up rather than simply abandoning it? It also makes these somewhat veiled references to the billionaire interests that are often propping up, the charter school movement, which I thought was quite interesting.
What is greater than public education? It's built on notions of commonality and consensus that children are all coming together to develop the civic understanding and the critical thinking skills that will prepare them to participate in democracy and civic life. It's just a wonderful thing, but I don't think that's really what's in front of a parent making those kinds of decisions. I think most parents are looking at their kids and the schools in their neighborhoods, and the choices that they can make are more and more governed by a very few very powerful interests.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yes. The future good of democracy pales in comparison to the parental impulse to protect and provide for your own tiny human.
Jessica Winter: Yes, absolutely. There's no doubt that many public schools are not succeeding in the ways that parents want them to succeed in terms of teaching their children and preparing them for college or a career or whatever it might be, but that's not because public education is a bad idea. It's strange that you have to say that out loud. It's because we don't properly fund public education at the same time that we blame an entire spectrum of social woes on teachers and schools and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The show is in Philly, obviously, Pennsylvania. We have a series here on The Takeaway where we're interviewing mayors, 23 mayors in 2023. In talking with one of those mayors in another town in Pennsylvania, our conversation really turned to the question of school funding in Pennsylvania. He was walking me through how many small towns and communities there are and how all of that leads to this funding base problem, where there just simply are not sufficient resources to support public schools. Is Abbott getting that right? Are they helping us to understand that story?
Jessica Winter: I think they are and I think Pennsylvania in particular has some specific challenges in regard to funding of schools. We don't have to get too far into the weeds but for example, there's this quirk in the school funding formula in Pennsylvania where charter schools end up getting disproportionately more money for special education services for example. That might sound a little obscure but it's a major, major problem and a growing problem for schools in Pennsylvania and Philadelphia specifically.
Abbott does not go out of its way to show some crumbling school. As I said, it's an upbeat show, it's a place where you want to be, it's a place you want to visit every week, but it does get its points across. There's an entire early episode that revolves around Janine trying to fix the overhead lights in the hallways because they don't have anyone to do it. I mentioned the asbestos earlier and that the school smells a little funny. Sometimes people make reference to that. It doesn't spend 22 minutes every week hammering this home that this school is just desperately underfunded, but it does get it across in its own way.
That's a comedic statement at times, it's a dramatic statement at times, and I think, increasingly, it's a political statement. Abbott Elementary is making a case for giving more money into the public schools and doing it in a way that's entertaining and edifying.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In part, this show doesn't spend all of its time talking about the broken bathrooms and hall lights and funny smells.
Jessica Winter: Oh, there's those exploding toilets. I just remembered the exploding toilets. [laughs] How could I forget?
Melissa Harris-Perry: It uses those moments to underline these really great almost like the storyline that we're following. Before we head out of here, while we've been talking all this serious policy, maybe we can talk just a little bit about the storyline we all care about, which is will they or won't they get together?
Jessica Winter: [laughs] Well, we're talking about Gregory and Janine and we've been wondering about them for a long time. I think something that's really cool about this past season is that the relationships between the characters have deepened. There was this ever-simmering romantic tension between Gregory and Janine that everyone's on the edge of their seat, but there was also this unexpected bromance blossoming between Gregory and Jacob, another one of the teachers. The principal, Ava, has become more three-dimensional this season without losing any of her Avaness. She used to be objectively terrible and shocking, now, she's more of a human being but she still has this unorthodox moral code and she's still as funny as ever.
This season, we met Janine's sister and Janine's mum and that really filled in for the viewers and the other characters a lot of who Janine is and what forces have shaped her. Then there was the final episode of the season, I mean, should we spoil it?
Melissa Harris-Perry: I think we shouldn't spoil it. Sometimes people are watching slow, so let's not spoil it. [laughs] There is a big heart though. There's a big heart in this show.
Jessica Winter: Yes and a crucial scene, this is a tiny bit of a spoiler, but a crucial scene in the season finale takes place inside the giant anatomical heart at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, which I thought was a great touch.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It is and it's like it's giving you this sort of-- to go literally inside the heart, inside Philly, inside the Franklin Institute was just great, just all the different layers that was working on.
Jessica Winter: Yes, it was beautiful. It was perfect.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jessica Winter is an editor at The New Yorker, writes about family and education and has spent a little time chatting with us today about Abbott Elementary. Thanks so much for joining us, Jessica.
Jessica Winter: Thank you. It was my pleasure.
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