Roush Review: Workplace Humor in ‘Abbott Elementary,’ ‘American Auto’

Quinta Brunson in Abbott Elementary, Ana Gasteyer in American Auto
Review
ABC/Raymond Liu; Greg Gayne/NBC

You think your job leaves something to be desired?

Try being a teacher at Philadelphia’s chronically underfunded Abbott Elementary, or putting out corporate dumpster fires in the mercenary executive offices of the Detroit-based American Auto. These workplace sitcoms (on ABC and NBC, respectively) couldn’t be more different socioeconomically, but each shines humorous light on the human condition as they confront adversity weekly.

Or inhuman, in the case of American Auto, which was created by Superstore‘s Justin Spitzer as the flip side to his enduring comedy about frontline workers subjected to the remote whims of higher-ups. “How do we actually put a price on people dying?” wonders Jack (Tye White), an empathetic everyman who in the pilot episode (which aired in December) was impulsively promoted from the assembly line to the C-suite of hapless automaker Payne Motors by incompetent new CEO Katherine “I’m not really that into cars” Hastings, a role that’s a perfect showcase for the brilliantly brittle Saturday Night Live veteran Ana Gasteyer.

Jack’s working-class background is in sharp contrast to his egregiously inept white-collar colleagues, who invariably take any crisis—an expensive recall (hence the death debate), a lack of LGBTQ representation in marketing, in tonight’s episode a labor negotiation—and explode it into a potential PR disaster. As they keep failing upward, isolated in their ivory tower and private jets, you’ll be reminded less of the Scranton misfits in The Office than of Veep’s toxically out-of-touch politicians. Or, during this week’s disastrous earnings call, of the desperate minions of Succession, who likewise are shown constantly sucking up to a moral vacuum. (Katherine, who came to Detroit from the pharmaceutical industry, believes people don’t like her because she’s a “girl boss.”)

The strong cast, including Michael B. Washington as an imperious design engineer not above using his double-minority identity (gay, Black) to his advantage and Superstore‘s Jon Barinholtz as the obnoxiously crass scion of Payne’s founding family, is challenged to hold the cynical center of a show where nearly everyone is a self-centered creep. Even Harriet Dyer as Sadie, the voice-of-reason communications director who had a one-night fling with Jack (which everyone assumes is an ongoing affair), is compromised, though she has the self-awareness to confess, perhaps half-jokingly, “9 till 6, I am a robot. After 6, I am dangerously unstable, a depressing shell of a human.”

Tye White as Jack, Harriet Dyer as Sadie, Michael Benjamin Washington as Cyrus, Humphrey Ker as Elliot in American Auto

American Auto (Greg Gayne/NBC)

I wouldn’t buy a used car from these people, but I’ll relish watching them dig their own graves in a future auto graveyard.

There’s much more heart in Abbott Elementary, an immediately endearing underdog story created by series star Quinta Brunson (A Black Lady Sketch Show), who charmingly plays the stubbornly optimistic second-grade teacher Janine Teagues. Using a too-familiar mock-documentary format, Brunson reveals the frequently dashed dreams of a public-school staff that has learned to make do with little. (Much of this reminded me of Up the Down Staircase. Look it up—or better yet, read it.)

As veteran kindergarten teacher and reluctant mentor Barbara Howard (the grand Sheryl Lee Ralph) tells Janine in a witheringly patronizing tone: “The job is working with what you’ve got so you don’t get let down.” Barbara is a wonderful foil for the eager-to-please Janine, who keeps looking for moments to prove her worth to her aloof role model. (In future episodes, Janine overreaches when making a video to help Barbara achieve her wish list for school supplies, and in the best episode of the five I’ve seen, seizes the opportunity to guide an overwhelmed Barbara through a confusing new high-tech teaching system.)

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Much of Abbott’s comedy comes from Janine’s refusal to settle, most memorably when she’s saddled with a notoriously disruptive student. The ensemble is terrific, including Lisa Ann Walter as a tough-cookie teacher from South Philly, Chris Perfetti as a neurotic history teacher overcompensating for what he sees as his white privilege, Tyler James Williams as the quietly ambitious new substitute who takes a shine to Janine, and especially the hilarious Janelle James as Ava, the school’s flippantly unprincipled principal. When told about an unattended classroom, she quips: “It’s not like something could go wrong in five minutes.”

Ava would be right at home on American Auto.

American Auto, Time Period Premiere, Tuesday, January 4, 8/7c, NBC

Abbott Elementary, Time Period Premiere, Tuesday, January 4, 9/8c, ABC