A year ago, if someone told any television executive that the hottest new comedy was going to be a half–hour sitcom on ABC, that executive would’ve had their assistant’s assistant laugh in that person’s face, and for good reason. Until the premiere of ABC’s Abbott Elementary, nearly every new network sitcom in the last ten years has been dead on arrival. And even if shows like Young Sheldon and The Conners are able to maintain a consistent viewership, Abbott Elementary is the one being watched and adored by all of Hollywood for its nearly impossible feat of being successful both commercially and critically on a network.
Created by, written by, and starring Quinta Brunson (formerly of BuzzFeed fame), Abbott Elementary is a mockumentary–style sitcom (made famous by The Office and Parks and Recreation) that centers on the teachers and principal of Abbott Elementary, an underfunded grade school in the Philadelphia metro area. Alongside Brunson, the show boasts an all–star ensemble of Sheryl Lee Ralph, Janelle James, Lisa Ann Walter, Tyler James Williams, and Chris Perfetti.
Abbott premiered on Dec. 7, 2021, and immediately was met with rave reviews. The show was said to be “[breathing] new life into the mockumentary” and “the kind of comedy that network TV needs.” Hollywood insiders instantly recognized that Abbott had the writing and acting chops to separate itself from the currently bleak slate of network sitcoms.
Formerly the staple of network television, sitcoms have been largely thrown to the wayside in the past decade. In the past when HBO’s Sex and the City was the outlier among network hits like Friends, Frasier, Everybody Loves Raymond, and Will & Grace, now network sitcoms struggle to garner the same cultural attention and critical respect as the more envelope–pushing, quasi–comedy offerings of cable and streaming. Now, network comedies have to battle against shows like Barry (HBO), Hacks (HBO Max), The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon), and Ted Lasso (Apple TV+), all of which have more money and less censorship than a network show like Abbott.
A critical factor contributing to network shows’ struggles is that fewer people than ever are watching network television at all. Cable and satellite subscriptions have only continued to decrease in the United States, dropping from 76 percent in 2015 to 56 percent in 2021. In spite of this, Abbott has put up impressive viewership numbers. Abbott saw viewership grow consistently during its first season run, eventually earning ABC’s highest comedy ratings since Modern Family’s finale. A key component of this has been delayed viewership on Hulu, with Abbott’s finale ratings increasing 200% from multi–platform views after the initial broadcast.
Awards–wise, Abbott Elementary is objectively the most successful network sitcom since Modern Family. Although shows such as Black–ish and The Good Place garnered several Emmy nominations during their runs, Abbott, in its first season, already picked up several major wins. At the 2022 Primetime Emmy Awards, Brunson won Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series, a feat that had not been accomplished by a network show since Modern Family in 2011. Additionally, series star Sheryl Lee Ralph’s win made her the first performer to win an Emmy for a network comedy since 2017, when both Kate McKinnon and Alec Baldwin won for their work on Saturday Night Live. The lead comedy acting categories have not gone to performers on network shows since Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory) and Melissa McCarthy (Mike and Molly) took home awards in 2014 and 2011, respectively.
Puck founder Matthew Belloni, who attended the Emmys, emphasized the industry support for Abbott on his post–Emmys recap episode for his podcast The Town, saying that “the applause in the room for [Brunson] and for [Abbott Elementary] was louder than almost any of the others.”
The support for Abbott during the ceremony was not limited to the people in the room, as all of Twitter was celebrating Abbott’s successes. Aside from the countless tweets quoting lines from the show and character fancam edits, during the 2022 Emmys, Abbott was the most tweeted about show in the United States. Sheryl Lee Ralph herself was tweeted about upwards of 150,000 times, more than any other nominee, beating out the cast of Succession, Jennifer Coolidge, and perhaps most impressively, Zendaya. In addition, Ralph’s acceptance speech has garnered the second most views from this year’s Emmys on their official YouTube page, second to only Zendaya.
What makes Abbott so refreshing and a show that the industry is rushing to embrace is that it’s authentically funny and heartwarming without trying to be something that it’s not. Abbott Elementary is a network sitcom without question, and that’s what audiences and critics alike love about it. There’s no explicit language, there’s no sex, there are no gimmicks: Abbott Elementary is pure heart and wit, and proves that sitcoms, if they want to be successful, should just be themselves.
All industry eyes will increasingly be on Abbott to see how its second season performs, and if it inspires writers and executives to take a second look at the format that initially made people fall in love with television.
Abbott Elementary is currently airing its second season. Watch it Wednesdays at 9 p.m. EST on ABC, or stream it the next day on Hulu.