Is it too soon to pick the best episodes of “Abbott Elementary,” which has been on the air for just over a year? It wasn’t too soon to put it on every end of year list IndieWire put together, so we say no.
On December 7, 2021, ABC premiered the pilot of Quinta Brunson’s elementary school mockumentary, about a spirited and underfunded Philadelphia public school. Brunson stars as second-grade teacher Janine Teagues, a second-year teacher yet to be worn down by the administration. Her optimism clashes with but endears her to senior teachers Barbara Howard (Sheryl Lee Ralph) and Melissa Schemmenti (Lisa Ann Walter) as they band with fellow newbie Jacob Hill (Chris Perfetti) and aspiring principal but current substitute Gregory Eddie (Tyler James Williams) against the incompetence of principal Ava Coleman (Janelle James). The teachers and students of Abbott quickly found a place in the hearts of American TV viewers as one of the biggest shows on network television — not to mention William Stanford Davis as custodian Mr. Johnson.
“Abbott” is a certified hit and here to stay (it was just renewed for a third season), so audiences can happily look back on all the joy it brought in its first year, and look forward to hopefully many, many seasons with the best teachers on TV. Though it’s early in the show’s tenure, it already has standout episodes like “Desking” and “Step Class” and the one where Gregory and Janine grind at the club.
Here are the 15 best episodes of “Abbott Elementary” (so far).
15. “Gifted Program” (Season 1, Episode 6)
Janine is compelled to start a gifted program for Abbott students, based on her own experiences as a child and a new transfer. The teachers are mostly open to it, but the gifted program quickly sees other students feeling left out of its exciting lessons. Melissa confronts past demons as she summons the courage to go out with “vending machine guy” with Barbara’s encouragement. Even as the slow-burn relationship at the heart of “Abbott,” the episode quickly illustrates that Janine and Gregory won’t always see eye-to-eye and that they took very different paths to becoming educators. The chicken and snake egg mixup — and Melissa having shady sources for both — is a classic “Abbott” gag right down to the visual payoff.
Janine and Gregory Moment of the Episode: After initially disagreeing about the gifted program, they band together to come up with an alternative. At the end of the day, she gently teases him as they walk to their cars. Flirt alert!! It’s also the beginning of a long and glorious tradition of the cameras catching Gregory as his looks at Janine give everything away.
14. “Development Day” (Season 2, Episode 1)
Scott Everett White/ABC
It’s been a rough summer for newly single Janine, who’s struggling to make rent when she returns to Abbott for the new school year. To top it off, she incorrectly schedules a surprise visit for the students from Philadelphia Flyers mascot Gritty, in a wordless and frankly poignant cameo. Highlights include Janine trying to drive her booted car away from the school and Gritty gyrating in front of Gregory until he understands the mascot’s appeal.
Janine and Gregory Moment of the Episode: When he’s the only person to notice her new hairdo.
13. “Wrong Delivery” (Season 2, Episode 2)
When a package arrives at Abbott by mistake, the teachers take it back to local charter school Addington Elementary, where Janine seethes over the school’s fancy computer lab and lack of mice. She appeals for Abbott to get its own computer in a “Shark Tank”-style competition that Ava hosts for how she should use their new discretionary funds, but a fresh mouse infestation takes priority.
Janine and Gregory Moment of the Episode: When she offers him a piña colada-flavored “water ice” for comfort because he got low-key dumped.
12. “Work Family” (Season 1, Episode 8)
Despite the lies TV feeds us, a close working relationship doesn’t always translate into lifelong friendship. That doesn’t stop Janine from being upset and determined to change things when she finds out that Jacob thinks of her only as a “work friend” and realizes it must only be worse with the rest of her colleagues. A bonding exercise leads the staff to being extremely concerned about Janine’s relationship, especially when they all meet Tariq (Zack Fox). Perhaps most importantly, this is the episode that features Gregory dancing, an instantly immortal gif and goofy, endearing moment.
Janine and Gregory Moment of the Episode: After staying deliberately silent throughout Janine’s explanation of Tariq, Gregory is the only one to follow her outside when she gets upset, and grabs an umbrella right before they step into the rain.
11. “The Principal’s Office” (Season 2, Episode 4)
Quinta Brunson and Lisa Ann Walter in “Abbott Elementary”
Gregory sends a disruptive student to Ava’s office, only to have the student returned to him remorseless and undisciplined. When Ava refuses to discipline students sent to her office, he must find his own ways to regain control of the classroom. Outside of school, Melissa offers to teach Janine how to cook, and Janine ends up interfering to reunite Melissa with her estranged sister. It’s a rare glimpse at any of the characters’ family lives, including Janine’s anecdotes about her mother and sister (“So everyone just got a sister now?” Mr. Johnson huffs), and Walter’s subtle “Parent Trap” costume is the perfect Easter Egg.
Janine and Gregory Moment of the Episode: Arguably a Mr. Johnson moment, but he interrupts their disagreement over whether or not Gregory should send his student to Ava. “Y’all in a fight? Looks like y’all in a fight,” he says smugly.
10. “Pilot” (Season 1, Episode 1)
Some shows are born great and others grow into it — “Abbott” is squarely the former. This pitch-perfect half hour introduces us to bright-eyed Janine and her colleagues at Willard R. Abbott Elementary School. Janine teams up with Jacob to get new rugs for the school, her can-do attitude juxtaposed with the older teachers’ carefully cultivated indifference as Ava uses school funds on a mural instead. Though they find Janine’s optimism naïve and all-but futile, her colleagues — and substitute teacher Gregory — can’t help but be inspired. The pilot lays out various character theses and dynamics that continue through the series.
9. “Ava vs. the Superintendent” (Season 1, Episode 12)
Rare though it is to see Ava actually care about her job, it always leads to an emotional and hilarious episode of “Abbott.” Things could get sticky for the school with Ava still in charge but no longer blackmailing the superintendent, and she has to make a presentation for the school board to appeal for funding. At the same time, Barbara channels her inner Melissa to shake down a different administrator, because the Lord helps those who help themselves (and does not help those who help themselves to the church’s petty cash). Ava’s “he mumbled and I didn’t hear it” might be one of the best line deliveries in the entire show.
Janine and Gregory Moment of the Episode: “It’s a lot easier to say yes to things when you’re the one asking” — oh my god??
8. “Zoo Balloon” (Season 1, Episode 13)
The school goes on a field trip to the local zoo, on the way to which Janine learns that Tariq got a job offer in New York City. Torn between the only man she’s ever been with and the job she was born to do, she makes a tough choice — while under a lot of pressure, facing her fears in a hot air balloon. Gregory’s long-term posting provides a silver lining, even though he’s dating Barbara’s daughter for the time being…
Janine and Gregory Moment of the Episode: He took a full-time post at Abbott because she helped him realize it’s special! Right when she might move to New York!! Send help!!!
7. “Juice” (Season 2, Episode 5)
Quinta Brunson and Tyler James Williams in “Abbott Elementary”
Janine votes to swap out the students’ cafeteria juice brand because it has less sugar, a choice that Barbara opposes because “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The extra two ounces of fluid quickly lead to students needing more bathroom breaks and every bathroom in the school eventually malfunctioning due to overuse. The episode MVP is easily Gregory’s student who seemingly destroys multiple toilets, followed closely by Barbara taking a bat to the last functioning facility so that the city will expedite repairs.
Janine and Gregory Moment of the Episode: When Janine tells everyone to get down but “really just Mr. Eddie.” He’s tall and she should say it!
6. “Sick Day” (Season 2, Episode 9)
Janine calls in sick, but a regional sub shortage means that Ava is the one taking over Janine’s class in her absence. Ava being Ava, she rejects Janine’s absence contingency plan, but when she finally follows it on Gregory’s insistence, she genuinely connects with students and experiences what it is to shape young minds. It’s one of the most sharply written episodes of “Abbott,” with Janine’s illness tying back to the cold open where Ava leaves her sandwich in the sun to free up space in the fridge for a line of eye patches that later irritates Jacob’s skin. And it’s a critical character moment for Ava, whose over-the-top personality appears at odds with her job, but who finds joy and satisfaction in teaching when she actually puts her mind to it.
Janine and Gregory Moment of the Episode: He steadily sticks up for her while she’s out to the point that Ava might actually start respecting her small colleague.
5. “Attack Ad” (Season 2, Episode 7)
The teachers fight back against an online ad targeting Abbott to promote Legendary Charter Schools. It turns out that Legendary is headed up by Draemond Winding (Leslie Odom, Jr.), a former Abbott student who had Barbara as a teacher and won’t rest until he turns every public school in Philadelphia into a legendary schooool. Janine plans to hang out with Tariq while giving back the rest of his things, a plan that Gregory strongly opposes. Odom Jr. is superb as the imperious and eventually sinister Draemond, firing on all cylinders to charm the Abbott staff while he seeks to undermine them. The ad itself is a hilarious tableau, and comes full circle when audiences learn that Tariq is the one who wrote Legendary’s infectious jingle.
Janine and Gregory Moment of the Episode: “Jumanji” :’)
4. “Step Class” (Season 1, Episode 9)
Ava steps in and steps on Janine’s toes when she takes over supervising the Step Club, and what Janine hopes will be an unlikely alliance quickly turns into the schoolteacher equivalent of a parakeet and a crocodile. Still, it turns out there’s more to Ava than meets the eye, and more to her capricious nature than the teachers might be ready to understand. In a horrifying (fantastic) B story, Barbara, Melissa, and Jacob learn the hard way that Gregory hates pizza, which leads to him breaking down over his bizarre eating habits (boiled chicken??) and Barbara’s concerned “I think we broke that boy.”
Janine and Gregory Moment of the Episode: He agrees to go get pizza with her, because even being disgusted by this food (???) is worth spending time with Janine.
3. “Candy Zombies” (Season 2, Episode 6)
It’s a stormy Halloween at Abbott, where a student steals the massive candy supply teachers were saving until the end of the day. The teachers end up on a madcap mission to calm their sugar-high students and track down Baby Thanos (Masen Pinnock), while Jacob is extra jumpy thanks to Mr. Johnson’s story of a ghost janitor roaming the basement. Sugar rush antics make the episode a particularly rewarding treat, as well as top-tier performances from Baby Thanos (“I am inedible!”) and a student dressed as and fabulously imitating Mr. Johnson (Marvin Winans III).
Janine and Gregory Moment of the Episode: The look on his face when she steps out of the classroom dressed as Marilyn Monroe.
2. “Desking” (Season 1, Episode 11)
Something is spreading like wildfire through Abbott Elementary, and that something is desking: The online trend where students run across classroom desks. The teachers learn about it after finding footprints on their desks and enlist Jacob’s sneakerhead boyfriend Zach (Larry Owens) (“Black?!” exclaims Ava) to get to the bottom of it. When they remove desks from all the classrooms, the teachers accidentally create the greatest desking arena ever to exist and have no choice but to destroy desking and make it deeply uncool.
On the surface, “Desking” is an obviously entertaining episode, but it does what almost no shows can achieve, and makes it look easy: Incorporating social media. Instead of focusing on the apps and videos that made desking popular, “Abbott” spotlights how an online trend impacts the lives and habits of young people exposed to it, and the authority figures in their lives who have to catch up and respond accordingly. Ava’s FOMO seals it neatly with a bow.
Janine and Gregory Moment of the Episode: When she shows up on-camera in Mr. Johnson’s stakeout stream, Gregory unleashes the happiest smile ever seen (“Interesting,” Mr. Johnson observes).
1. “Holiday Hookah” (Season 2, Episode 10)
Chris Perfetti, Lisa Ann Walter, William Stanford Davis, and Sheryl Lee Ralph in “Abbott Elementary”
The rare treat of seeing characters leave the workplace in a workplace comedy actually feels a lot like seeing teachers outside of school — and this episode has both. On the last day before the holidays, Barbara and Melissa host a Christmas soiree in the teachers lounge while dealing with Jacob’s dislike of the holiday, while Janine, Ava, and Gregory run into each other at a hookah lounge. It was the slow-grind heard ‘round the nation as these two obvious soulmates grapple with the fact that they are not only professional besties but young, hot, and horny. But like any good will they/won’t they, it gets cut short — to be continued.
Janine and Gregory Moment of the Episode: This entire episode is a Janine and Gregory moment! God bless us, every one.
“Abbott Elementary” is now streaming on Hulu.
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