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Is the network sitcom suddenly back from the dead?

It sure looks that way. Abbott Elementary, the new ABC sitcom from star/creator/ex-Buzzfeeder Quinta Brunson, is an unexpected ratings hit.  While TV ratings now factor in streaming, ABC hasn’t seen these kind of numbers since Modern Family rode off into the sitcom sunset.

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Why? the simple answer is the show is good. Abbott Elementary is currently polling at 100% with critics on Rotten Tomatoes, with raves like “Brunson is pulling off a premise that's both brilliant and tricky” … “the chemistry and comedic timing with the cast is phenomenal” … “a fun, smart, good network sitcom that we can all wrap our arms around.”

It doesn’t hurt that Brunson is an immensely likable lead, supported by a cast of quirky supporting characters who seem both familiar and fresh. 

That familiar/fresh combo may be the key to Abbott Elementary’s initial success. While the show is getting rightful applause for its mostly Black cast and unorthodox (for a sitcom) setting in an underfunded public school, it’s the familiar elements that make it all so accessible.  

In fact, Abbott Elementary is kicking butt by appearing to follow the formula of another hit sitcom (although one that took a little longer to find popularity) -- Parks and Recreation.  Let’s take a look at three ways that Brunson is putting a fresh spin on the comedy lessons learned in Pawnee, and somehow doing it without a miniature horse.

The Premise

If we pitched you this sitcom premise:

Well-intentioned civic workers find a way to succeed despite severe underfunding and bureaucratic bungling.

Which show would you think we were talking about? Don't say 60 Minutes.

Both Abbott and Parks feature good people trying to affect change from the inside, though even incremental victories seem darn near impossible. Our heroes’ goals are modest -- a non-urine-stained rug for a classroom, a plot of public grass to replace a long-neglected construction pit - to use examples from both shows’ pilots. But even when the characters keep slamming into organizational brick walls, they find ways to make things just a little bit better. All it takes is someone willing to try.

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At their heart, both shows are workplace comedies, with all the delights those shows entail. “I just love a good workplace comedy,” Brunson told The Washington Post. “I wanted to make the audience fall in love with the workplace, and I wanted the comedy to feel like you, the audience member, were working at Abbott, too. That informed the mockumentary style — a style I’m already obsessed with, but I think the reason I love it so much is because it makes you feel as if you’re there.”

Which brings us to …

The Format

Abbott Elementary is an unapologetic 21st-century sitcom, using the faux-documentary style pioneered by NBC shows that Brunson admired.  That’s one reason she recruited Randall Einhorn to direct the show’s first four episodes.  

“One thing that’s great about Randall is that his work helped pioneer the American mockumentary style with The Office, and he kind of helped launch Parks and Recreation, too,” she says. “Sometimes I wonder where we would’ve been without him.”

A huge fan of that mockumentary style, Brunson has been working hard to put her own spin on it. “What’s fun and also a hindrance about this format is there hasn’t been many, and you need to redefine it when you do it,” she told Variety. “We really feel like we built our own mockumentary feeling.”

The key, she says, is not to get too reliant on the talking-to-camera trick. “The talking head can mess you up,” Brunson admits. “If you have too many of them, now you don’t have a show, you just have people talking to a camera. But often we would shoot additional talking heads that weren’t necessarily scripted and then those would make it into the cut because they just happened to give us more information or a look that we didn’t capture.”

The Characters

But where we really see the similarities between Abbott Elementary and Parks and Recreation are in the characters themselves. Abbott’s faculty members are sharp, funny, and original -- but they share a lot of traits with their comedy ancestors from Parks and Rec. Consider: 

Janine Teagues/Leslie Knope Who doesn’t love a wide-eyed optimist who will do anything to help make the world a better place? Even in the face of coworkers who either naysay or get in the way? In the tradition of recent comedy hits like Ted Lasso and Schitts Creek, Abbott Elementary succeeds because we’re rooting so hard for good, nice people to win - because that's what always happens in life, right?

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Idealistic heroes like Janine and Leslie are in. As Brunson told PBS Newshour, I’ve seen multiple people say, ‘I turn off Euphoria and then watch Abbott for a palate cleanse.’”

Barbara Howard/Ron Swanson  Though the two characters don’t seem that similar on the surface -- Barbara is no libertarian and Ron has superior facial hair -- they both serve as grouchy mentors who insist that our heroes need to set their sights a little lower. 

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But despite their stone-serious dispositions, both have good hearts -- and the backs of our heroes, even when pessimistic advice is ignored. 

Ava Coleman/Bobby Newport - Ava is the unqualified principal who got the job via church scandal blackmail. Bobby (Paul Rudd) Newport is the unqualified candidate who uses Daddy’s money to take a political run at Leslie Knope. Neither one is too bright but that doesn’t stop them from often getting what they want. 

Jacob Hill/Tom Haverford - Though Jacob’s workplace intentions are arguably better than Tom’s, both awkwardly appropriate Black culture to boost their social credibility.

Gregory Eddie/Ben Wyatt - It’s early in the Janine/Gregory romance, but we can see where this is headed. Both men are well-educated, decent guys who are charmed by our leading ladies’ optimism and relentless hard work.

Let's be clear – Abbott is putting a fresh spin on Park's archetypes, not ripping off the show. But there's at least one other similarity and it's crucial: The characters are hilarious. “The job first and foremost was to make a comedy, make a funny show,” Brunson says. 

And like Parks and Rec? “I just like my comedies to have heart in them."

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