Abbott Elementary premiered early last December and quickly took America by storm. Who knew America needed another mockumentary to watch?
Quinta Brunson has seemingly done the impossible: she made something that everyone could look forward to on a Tuesday night. Inspired by her youth in Philadelphia, the series follows a group of teachers working hard to do right by their students at a woefully underfunded public elementary school.
Somehow, Quinta was able to take a story of an underprivileged black school and make it appealing to a white audience. And she was able to do it by sharing stories of black people without making it into some weird, after-school special, preaching what it means to be black. Instead, Quinta created a show that, yes, is about blackness, but is also about so much more than that.
In her recent interview with The New York Times, Quinta explained that this was exactly what she wanted to do with Abbott. She said,
“We’re not talking about being black all day. It’s a show about these people’s lives.”
“There have been recent sitcoms — Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat — really good sitcoms, but my generation was starting to get tired of race as the only focal point. The white shows got to just be white, but a lot of the shows with people of color were about the color of the people and not about stories of the people. So Abbott also feels like a shift in that way.”
Now that networks are finally understanding that putting a show about PoC on a primarily white network is actually profitable, we are slowly seeing more shows that are meant for minorities, which you can tell by the way those stories are told.
Unfortunately, no matter how you cut it, television tends to be pretty segregated. Either, shows are intended for a white audience or for POC. Most of us are all too aware of how Friends was a whitewashed version of Living Single because it was seemingly inconceivable that white people could empathize with characters of color.
We are then left with your white shows and your “colored” shows. The benefit of such is that, when you have shows that are segregated, every character tends to be fleshed out. Characters who are PoC aren’t just caricatures of their race because the target audience already knows the ins and outs of their culture.
But when you have shows about PoC made for a white audience, the people creating them often feel like they have to “introduce” their culture to the audience to make it more palatable. It ends up feeling preachy, and leaves you wondering, why can’t we have a mainstream show where PoC just get to exist?
Instead, we often have to endure episodes that highlight trauma in our community that we don’t tend to see with white comedy shows. Black-ish, while a beloved show, is famous for its after-school style specials. When they “tackled” colorism, for example, they took a topic with a rich history and had to water it down for a 30-minute television show, failing to give a satisfying episode that actually discussed the issue at hand.
White comedy shows get to just have fun, but in almost any mainstream show with a PoC lead, the trauma inherent from being a minority is always brought in for views. In a time where you watch shows as a form of escapism, it’s disheartening to watch.
But Quinta seems to have avoided doing this altogether. No one in Abbott is boiled down to a stereotype. Rather, the characters have fun, interesting backstories that leave you wanting more. A show like Abbott makes us human in a medium where we’re often there for the development of white cis straight characters.
Thankfully, networks love to replicate success. And with Abbott Elementary being as successful as it is, it wouldn’t be surprising if we started seeing more shows like this pop up. Quinta laid the blueprint for shows that allow marginalized people to explore their identity in a way that’s not trauma-based.
Anyone can sympathize with the boss who shouldn’t be in charge, the one who is a little too over eager, or the one who is only there until the next big thing. Abbott shows its uniqueness through its comedy and the fact that they explore groups of people that we normally see as side characters is part of what makes this show so special. In doing so, Abbott Elementary is trying to be a mainstream show, not just a “black show” or “white show”. We can only hope that there will be more to come with that.