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Abbott ElementaryThe renewal of the second season is no surprise given its success among critics and viewers. Guided by Quinta Brunson and some of the thoughts behind it Parks and recreation and The office, Abbott Elementary have already found themselves being compared to the two popular, long-running programs. Abbott Elementary feels like the natural evolution of the mockumentary format rather than something repackaged, but it’s still rare to see a show like this receive almost universal praise. Even before it debuted, an early pilot of Parks and recreation highlighted the audience’s difficulty seeing something resembling a “female Michael Scott,” especially when it came to public service jobs. Michael Schur say Leslie had to be “rebuilt” during the series’ first season until the best version of her nerdy optimism was brought to life.
Minority TV characters often face the burden of representing the entire group they portray. If Leslie was as bad at her job as Michael Scott, then so be it Parks and recreation trying to say something about women in government? Although it was not the intention of the show, it was still a characteristic used in bad faith against the show. It is also an unfair burden for minorities in comedy, and places respectability policies over realistic depictions of what can be fun for minority characters. Grades across the spectrum should have poor traits; to be horrible crosses boundaries of race, gender and everything else. It is also rarely as simple as one character being only good or evil.
If there is any evidence that audiences have largely begun to realize this, it is in Ava Coleman, Abbott Elementary ‘s rector. The play by Janelle James is Coleman selfish, rude and politically incorrect. The character is a prominent object of online odes. It seemed like Abbott Elementary had done the impossible with Coleman: bringing the woman Michael Scott to life. While there were some early whisper on Twitter whether Coleman is “poor representation” for black educators, the character quickly became a fan favorite. As the season progressed, the character became more like Ron Swanson, with Coleman taking on the responsibility. Episode nine, “Step Class,” shows Ava dealing with the difficulty of a sick relative. It’s almost a complete revelation of the caring, soft person deep inside Ava.
That is, until it is not. In the end, Ava remains Ava; she still beats Gregory, continues to steal resources and will still definitely push a child out of the way to first get through a fire exit. The show’s writers have brought fully formed black characters into the mockumentary era. The script gives them access to a variety of human experiences. A character like Ava Coleman is in her own orbit. She’s not a female Michael Scott or Ron Swanson because the show is something completely different and thoroughly run by Janelle James.
James handles Ava at each turn and determines the character’s pace. She makes Coleman the ringleader, the fool and the villain at once. The realities of the public school system may be dark, but James comes up with jokes on topics like school-to-prison pipeline and limited resources. Ava forces the viewers and the rest off Abbott Elementary‘s tired teachers, to laugh to avoid crying. It is no surprise that James, a veteran of dark comedy, has found a new pace for black female characters in prime time. She wrote and contributed Black Monday, a joke-driven machine that satirizes the worst of the 1980s. She also appeared briefly in Corporate, Comedy Central’s dark, short-lived (and far too ignored) outbursts The office.
Her debut comedy album from 2017, Black and mild, is, however, the best evidence of James’ ability to jump from politics to family to drugs with a sardonic tone. Her delivery can convince you to laugh at almost any idea, no matter how strange or dissuasive it is. In “Thirties,” she talks about being a lifelong pervert, from when she discovered the joys of masturbation at a young age. When an audience finally breaks out in the album’s loudest laughter, James riffs: “No one ever talks about that shit and it makes women feel alone! You sure thought you were alone, but everyone slipped and slid on the couch! She is not afraid to defy the expectations often placed on black women in her comedy.There is no concern about how the material can be understood by white audiences.Like her Abbott Elementary character, she is able to turn jokes about the audience, herself and any other target she likes. What helps sell almost every punch line, though, is James’ sheer joy at the jokes she tells.
In addition to sincerity, there is a sense that James, like Ava, knows that she has a special ability to enter any space with the confidence to remain herself. There is also a sense that she knows it is ridiculous that a black woman needs that ability to be herself at work, on stage or anywhere else. It is this quality that James brings to life in Ava, giving the character range and a sense of depth that opens Abbott Elementary to new forms of narrative. Ava Coleman reminds me of another unlikely star in broadcast television: Gene Belcher from Bob’s burgers. If that connection seems strange, it’s perfectly fair. Gene, however, is a character who must thrive on being both thoroughly annoying and funny.
But more importantly, Gene is expressed by Eugene Mirman. Many may not associate Janelle James’ stand-up with someone who is considered the definition of an “alternative” comedian (and white), but black female comedians who can play for both black and white audiences are usually considered “everything. “comics anyway. For those familiar with the New York City comedy scene, it was no wonder to find the two in the same show. Like James, Mirman also has his own mix of “sincere and ironic” comedy, showcased at the festival he founded in 2008. The Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival was as much for fans as it was a celebration of people who just love to make people laugh. It started as a jokea documentary from 2019, looks at the festival’s farewell year and why it was such a special event for comedians.
The year before, Mirman announced that he was passing the festival on to James. And in 2018, the Janelle James Comedy Festival debuted. Although the timing could not have been worse, to hold a festival with Covid-19, the festival’s break and quarantine gave her time to give Abbott Elementary one shot. Ava is a culmination of the philosophy James uses at the center of his stand-up: No one is just one thing. Ava’s breakout success is the result of a comedian who has honed an incredible voice over the course of his career. After watching James perform in packed theaters and almost empty bar shows, I have seen her win over almost every kind of audience. If anyone could bring a black female character to life in prime time, who should be both a villain and sympathetic, James was always the person who could handle it.
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