It’s been 19 years since The Office premiered on NBC and ruined my life. Not because I hate the show — I love all the good episodes and loathe all the bad ones — but because its massive, still-ongoing success has meant lots of sitcoms in the ensuing decades have adopted its mockumentary format. I’ve liked plenty of those shows, from the sitcom-y What We Do In the Shadows to the more straight-faced Cunk on Earth. But sometimes the limits of the format are more pronounced than the benefits. That’s how I’ve felt about Abbott Elementary lately, and its third season premiere continued to make me wish that the cameras were not a character in the show.
There’s an argument to be made that the mockumentary structure gives Abbott an air of authenticity, complementing the careful work set designers put towards creating a lively yet resource-starved school, populated by kids in uniforms and teachers styled in attire best described as “comfy professionalism.” Those talking head asides let the characters be honest about each other and the institutions that frustrate them, an easy venue for jokes about funding as well as the secret life of the janitor, Mr. Johnson (William Stanford Davis). Abbott’s writers, however, deeply care about the show’s characters in a very traditional sitcom way, with their personal lives bleeding into their professional ones in ways both funny and uncomfortable, and this is where mockumentaries strain themselves the most.
“Career Day,” the two-part premiere, skips ahead five months after “Franklin Institute,” season 2’s big finale that had protagonist Janine Teagues (creator Quinta Brunson) and fellow teacher Gregory Eddie (Tyler James Williams) confess their feelings after two years of awkward flirting. The time skip is handled pretty clumsily; while it’s a great way to rework some characters and introduce new ones — like district rep Manny (gentle king Josh Segarra) — it mostly seems like a device to put off answering the Janine/Gregory question. (Albeit with a great joke about the camera crew getting robbed, as an explanation for the time skip.)
It’s in Gregory and Janine’s scenes where Abbott’s mock camera crew is pushed to the limits, as Brunson, who scripted the episode, rightly intuits that the pair would not work out what happened between them with a camera crew present. Instead, we witness the scene via Ava Coleman’s “hidden cameras.” This hidden camera gag isn’t really that funny, but worse, it strains credulity, undermining the raw earnest energy of the show. These are two characters that are easy to care about because they themselves care so much. Watching them sort through how much they do or don’t care about each other is something that, ironically, a documentary crew can’t get close enough to capture. Good jokes come from characters; bad jokes undermine them.
Abbott Elementary is a terrific comedy about resilience and optimism, about what it’s like to not just make the best of the bad hand dealt to you, but how to inspire others to do the same. In the show’s best moments, the cast of teachers functions as its own community, supporting each other in a system that’s hostile to their profession, or the care necessary to do their jobs well. It would be more poignant — and funnier — if there wasn’t anything getting in the way of that.