Season 2 of Abbott Elementary premieres on Sept. 21 on ABC, with new episodes weekly. Episodes will be available to stream on Hulu the following day.
In the Season 2 premiere of Abbott Elementary, newly full-time teacher Gregory Eddie (Tyler James Williams) is stunned by how much the district expects him to teach his students during the course of the year. Veteran teacher Barbara Howard (Emmy winner Sheryl Lee Ralph) points out that the curriculum is based on the assumption that nothing ever goes wrong and that the teachers can use every moment of the day efficiently. Encouraging Gregory to get used to disappointment, she tells him, “Welcome to the Philly public school system where you never have what you need.” Yet Abbott Elementary’s brilliant tragedy-tinged humor is based around breaking down Barbara’s pessimistic mantra, telling heartwarming stories of a determined faculty that still manages to do right by their students.
Schools make an excellent setting for TV shows because the beginning of an academic year provides a perfect start for a new season, an opportunity for characters to grow and dynamics to change offscreen over the break. In “Development Day,” the character development is even more rapid-fire than the jokes. As everyone catches up on what they did with their summer vacations, it allows the writers to reveal new sides to their already charming cast.
The biggest transformation is found in series creator Quinta Brunson’s character, Janine Teagues, who is fresh off a breakup with her deadbeat boyfriend. While Janine’s trying to exude her usual heaping portions of cheer, she’s having deeper problems than the adorable need to use a pot as a step stool to reach things on high shelves. The new school year has also given her additional responsibility and status among her colleagues. When Barbara and hard-edged veteran teacher Melissa Schemmenti (Lisa Ann Walter) push back against her idea for a mixer where more experienced teachers will share wisdom with new hires, Janine informs them that attendance is mandatory. It’s a show of forcefulness the character hasn’t previously demonstrated, and one that her coworkers accept with bemusement.
Barbara has previously served as a more practical foil to Janine, but Season 2 builds on her victory of getting extra funding for the school during the Season 1 finale by showing that she’s finally allowing herself to hope for more resources. Abbott Elementary adds bite to the sitcom formula by depicting the way America’s education systems neglect Black students in a way that hasn’t been as well elucidated since Season 4 of The Wire. Season 2 hasn’t lost any of that sting as Barbara struggles with a broken system that will allow her to put in a ramp for a student with a wheelchair but not give them a desk that suits their needs. Melissa, meanwhile, doesn’t get much screentime in the Season 2 premiere, but the episode introduces a long-term conflict that is clearly weighing deeply on her, which will hopefully be developed more in future episodes.
Other characters remain very much themselves. Principal Ava Coleman (Janelle James) is still coming up with hustles and sexually harassing Gregory and Jacob Hill (Chris Perfetti) remains a ludicrous caricature of white liberalism. Abbott Elementary’s mockumentary framing and character archetypes have a lot in common with The Office, but its characters are generally better people, morally speaking. The Office would likely have had Jacob’s new focus on teaching American Sign Language be empty virtue signaling, but in Abbott Elementary, the initial awkwardness of his efforts has a sweet outcome.
Abbott Elementary also plays with the common sitcom tactic of flashy guest stars, teasing a conventional choice and winding up with a far funnier one. It’s a plot that lets Gregory show his strong straight man chops by reacting with the incredulity of Parks and Recreation‘s Ben Wyatt trying to figure out why everyone is obsessed with Li’l Sebastian.
Primarily telling stories about teachers rather than students allows Abbott Elementary to elucidate the hardships of an underprivileged school without treating the kids as victims. The children may have been written off because of their test scores and packed into overcrowded classrooms, but they’re shown as joyful. It’s their teachers who are left struggling to try to avoid letting them down while also managing their own messy lives. Not many comedies deal so honestly with difficult subjects such as debt and accessibility, but Abbott Elementary manages to find ways to laugh at the absurdity of a system that is so obviously broken. It simultaneously reveals the impossible stresses teachers are under while delivering the comforting message that good things are possible with enough grit and teamwork.