TV

Celebrating The Rise Of ‘Abbott Elementary’s’ Quinta Brunson

Quinta Brunson is a master of reinvention. She’s done it too many times to count during her short-yet-prolific career.

It’s a fact that becomes unavoidable as soon as you try to recommend her new ABC sitcom Abbott Elementary to anyone in your social circle. Once you make your pitch: It’s a workplace comedy shot in a mockumentary style that gives fans a hilarious and surprisingly heartfelt look at the joys and struggles of being an educator in an inner-city school system, the next ask is fairly obvious … “Who’s in it?”

Do you jog their memory of Brunson’s past work by shouting out her brilliance on HBO’s A Black Lady Sketch Show? Do you remind them she used to create viral videos, viewed by millions, for Buzzfeed? Do you point to her acting work in shows like Miracle Workers, Big Mouth, and iZombie? Maybe you mention how she created a Youtube Red series about Black millennial struggles called Broke or you offer a reading rec in the form of her book of essays, or do you steer them to the many (many) memes created in her honor?

If all else fails – or if you’re too indecisive to pick just one standout moment on Brunson’s impressive resume – it’s probably best to just call her the “Girl Who Has Never Been on a Nice Date.”

It was that series of quick, 15-second comedy clips posted to a still-in-its-infancy Instagram that earned Brunson the viral fame she would one day convert into creative prestige. Trading on the kind of accessible and painfully relatable humor she grew up admiring with shows like The Office and Saturday Night Live, Brunson played a woman constantly gobsmacked over her date’s ability to afford everything from dinner at a restaurant to a large popcorn at the movie theater. Those videos would strike a chord amongst the millennial demo big enough to draw the attention of Buzzfeed’s studio arm, which would eventually invite Brunson to start crafting sketches for them.

“I think my experience at BuzzFeed — BuzzFeed was very for everyone, and the stuff I made was made so that anyone could relate to it and share — definitely informed a lot of my love of creating in that way,” Brunson told The Washington Post in January.

It’s that innate understanding of how to package even the most specific experiences so that they have mass appeal that has set Brunson apart, helping her to translate her internet fame into compelling narrative-first work.

Brunson would go on to create pilots with the likes of The Bernie Mac Show creator Larry Wilmore and work on her craft in front of the camera, playing quirky, highly-watchable characters that recurred and guested on some of TV’s cult-favorite shows just long enough to make audiences miss her when she left.

But it was on the aforementioned A Black Lady Sketch Show that Brunson got a chance to challenge the typecasting so many Black women face within the industry. Whether she was playing bit parts in a parody of ballroom culture or stealing scenes as one half of the show’s Shakespearean romance, Rome & Julissa, Brunson and the rest of the cast constantly toyed with expectations and pushed thought boundaries.

Brunson’s always had a knack for mining comedy from her own experiences, paying homage to her roots and inviting audiences of all backgrounds to come along for the ride, which is what makes her latest success story that much more inspiring. In a time when streaming is king and appointment-viewing has all but fossilized, Brunson’s bringing her brand of funny to network TV – and people are actually tuning in.

No one, especially not a promising millennial in the comedy space, is eyeing network sitcom status at the moment. If you want prestige, the thought is you go to HBO and FX, if you want a viral streaming hit, you pop over to Netflix. In many ways, channel surfing feels like a dying pastime, but for Brunson, who created, wrote, and produced Abbott Elementary in partnership with WB and ABC, the communal aspect of television always felt integral to what she was trying to do as a storyteller.

“I loved being able to watch TV with my family, so I wanted to do that for people. I wanted to create a sitcom that had a strong point of view, from the millennial me, but could also span generations,” Brunson once told Time.

With Abbot Elementary, Brunson has no doubt accomplished that, helped by a diverse cast filled with comedy veterans and relative newcomers and a focus on highly relatable issues that often go underrepresented on screen. From the underfunding of public schools to the lack of support for teachers (a timely storyline considering the trials educators faced during the pandemic) to more universal problems, like being trapped in a failing relationship and constantly questioning your life’s purpose.

As Janine Teagues, one of the youngest elementary educators at the school, Brunson brings to mind a millennial Leslie Knope – all sunshine and optimism and exhausting work ethic. She’s surrounded by coworkers that flirt with but never fully commit, to their respective sitcom tropes.

Janelle James’ incompetent, over-confident Principal Ava Coleman mismanages everything from her teachers’ personalities to the school’s budget with aplomb. Tyler James William’s Gregory’s on-screen chemistry with Brunson shows promise for sitcom fans looking for the next will-they-wont-they TV couple. And the unfairly talented Sheryl Lee Ralph finally gets to stretch her single-cam muscles, playing the no-nonsense veteran Mrs. Howard, an old-timer irritated by the enthusiasm and inexperience of the school’s new crop. For fans of past shows like The Office, Parks And Rec, and so many more, there is something here, but Abbot Elementary is doing it in its own way, walking a path that’ll have fans comparing new shows to it in no time.

Those nods to old favorites are no doubt a result of Brunson’s stated love for TV, but Abbott Elementary is far more than just a collage of throwbacks to TV’s workplace comedy golden era – it’s also a love letter to West Philadelphia (where Brunson grew up), and a semi-biography of her mom, a teacher who dedicated 40 years to mentoring inner-city youth.

“I think a lot of it is based on what I’ve seen in my mom’s years of teaching,” Brunson told PopSugar about certain storylines in the show. “And then we incorporated a lot of the more modern stuff.”

The “more modern stuff” covers everything from Janine’s attempt to use TikTok to raise funds for basic school supplies to Mrs. Howard trying to game the system when new tech must be incorporated into the classroom. In her own way, Brunson is trying to shine a light on not only the struggle teachers face but the incredible fortitude and passion with which they approach their jobs, despite a glaring lack of support. It’s that dual perspective – Brunson’s determination to show both the defeats and the victories of these self-sustaining educators – that feels revolutionary. Especially when you consider the setting of an inner-city school, which conjures memories of TV shows that often fixate on strife and stories of Black suffering, not shows that treat Black characters as individuals, capable of breaking cycles and inspiring change, all while delivering corny jokes to the camera. Brunson seems adamant to change that with this show, presenting Black characters – and Black women specifically – not as a monolith but a spectrum.

“People are so resilient. People find joy. It’s a human thing to do,” she said when discussing some of the show’s heavier subject matter with Pop Sugar. “In this country, Black people are specifically good at finding joy despite the hardships of our living situations, and I thought it was important to be able to show that.”

So that’s what she’s doing — reminding us of network TV’s potential, pushing it to do more than just crime procedurals and reality singing competitions. Whether it’s viral videos, Instagram series, web-comedies, sketch shows, or one of the hottest sitcoms to hit the small screen in quite a while, Brunson has always been challenging audiences to see the world the way she does – a way that reflects a more complete portrait of life, with characters from all backgrounds getting to win, learning to lose, and earning the kind of growth they haven’t always been granted.

And now, she’s charging TV to do the same.

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