There have been a lot of days lately where it’s felt like the traditional broadcast TV networks haven’t been trying very hard. Their primary goal, it so often seems, is to keep generating spin-offs of pre-existing franchises (coming soon, probably: FBI: IT Enterprise Services Division) and to provide library content for their respective streaming services. Sometimes, the broadcasters stop airing their more interesting shows altogether and send them straight to streaming, which is why Evil is now a Paramount+ exclusive rather than part of CBS’ primetime lineup.
But from time to time, the Big Four can still be found putting in an effort on the comedy front. This has been a pretty good season for new network sitcoms, including Ghosts on CBS, Grand Crew and American Auto on NBC, and especially The Wonder Years and Abbott Elementary on ABC. None are classics quite yet, and some have a bit of growing to do. But all have come out of the gate more sure of themselves, their characters, their tones, and their voices than we often see from freshman sitcoms, much less from this many of them airing in the same season.
It helps, though, that all of these shows are riffing to some extent on past series. Ghosts — starring Rose McIver from iZombie as a woman who discovers she can see all the spirits haunting the bed and breakfast she and her husband are renovating — is a remake of a 2019 British series. The Wonder Years is a reboot of the classic Fred Savage coming-of-age tale (with Savage himself directing many episodes), this time focusing on a Black family in Alabama in the late Sixties. The others aren’t officially remakes, but it’s not hard to see the DNA of various comedies of the last decade or so running through their veins. The corporate satire American Auto — starring Ana Gasteyer as the new head of a struggling car company — evokes memories of both The Office and Superstore, two previous employers of its creator, Justin Spitzer. Grand Crew is a hangout comedy akin to Happy Endings, New Girl, and others, but with an all-Black cast. And Abbott Elementary, created by and starring Quinta Brunson, is basically, “What if The Office or Parks and Recreation took place at a Philadelphia public school?”
Even the official remakes are only sometimes using plots or jokes from the originals, like when the new Wonder Years sent young Dean (Elisha “EJ” Williams) to watch his mother Lillian (Saycon Sengbloh) at her job, tweaking a memorable first-gen episode where Kevin Arnold visited his father’s office. But you can hear echoes of earlier shows throughout all of these. The American Auto pilot, for instance, had a running gag about a driverless car’s inability to recognize Black pedestrians, which was similar to the plot of the best episode of the brilliant-but-canceled late-2000s comedy Better Off Ted. Another episode had a character noting that someone else’s attempt at humor had “the cadence of a joke,” which is something Perd Hapley once said on Parks and Rec.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Parks and Rec was a sunnier version of The Office, for instance (with many of the same creative personnel), which in turn was a remake of a British show. Happy Endings didn’t invent the idea of a sitcom whose primary appeal was the chance to spend a half-hour a week with a group of likable goofballs. There are few new ideas available in television — in comedy especially. Being inspired, officially or unofficially, by good shows is certainly preferable to trying to make the next Work It. And, just as importantly, having these earlier shows as touchstones, whether implicit or explicit, helps provide the kind of structural foundation new comedies need while they’re figuring out the humor part. With very rare exceptions (Cheers, Arrested Development, Modern Family, and a few others), sitcoms need time to learn what’s funny about each character, about the actors who play them, and about how everyone interacts. If you’re flailing around early on trying to generate story ideas, or stylistic flourishes, then that’s less time and effort available for developing the actual comedy in your comedy.
The best of these shows so far has been Abbott Elementary. Quinta Brunson never worked on The Office, Parks, or any of the other modern mockumentary series, but the series’ most frequent director, Randall Einhorn, did. The setting and the stakes are different, but you can very much see a lot of Leslie Knope in the persistently chipper persona of Brunson’s second grade teacher, Janine Teagues. And you can see even more of Jim Halpert in the detached, bemused responses and glances at the camera of substitute teacher Gregory (Tyler James Williams). It’s not that Brunson or Williams are doing impressions of Amy Poehler or John Krasinski, but both are having fun finding their own take on these now-familiar archetypes, like a jazz musician getting to play around within a popular melody.
A school proves an excellent location for this style of humor. The stretched funding of a public school (even in the Covid-free reality this show, like most current series, has opted for) provides endless fodder for dark comedy, while the kids — especially the ones in the kindergarten class taught by the school’s elder stateswoman Barbara (the divine Sheryl Lee Ralph) — are so young and full of sugar energy that they’re easy to turn to for a silly visual gag whenever the satire is at risk of feeling too bleak. There are regionally specific jokes, like Barbara disapproving of Janine teaching her kids words like “jawn,” “boul,” and “hoagie.” But even that, or fellow second grade teacher Melissa (Lisa Ann Walter) sourcing school supplies from her contacts at the pro sports complex in South Philly, speaks to more universal school/workplace issues about juggling resources, colleagues with contrasting philosophies, etc. The school’s unqualified scammer of a principal, Ava (Janelle James, hilarious) could be the boss on all kinds of shows, but her unapologetic hustle is particularly amusing in this context.
In this week’s episode, Janine proposes that the school start up a gifted program like the one she loved so much as a girl. She means well, and her extremely woke friend Jacob (Chris Perfetti) finally finds his niche running this new program. But the creation of it has a domino effect on everyone else that results in, among other things, animal control paying a visit to Janine’s classroom. The logic of unintended consequences throughout the story will feel familiar, even as the execution is strong and the individual beats stay true to what we know of these particular characters. It is an extremely likable, and increasingly funny, new comedy in a season with a surprising number of them.
Imitation is the sincerest form of television. It’s also often incredibly useful at giving new shows time to find ways to become their own thing.
Episodes of Abbott Elementary premiere on ABC at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesdays, then stream the next day on Hulu; same goes for The Wonder Years, with episodes premiering on Wednesdays at 8:30 ET. American Auto and Grand Crew premiere episodes on NBC Tuesdays at 8 and 8:30 ET, respectively, then stream on Hulu and Peacock. Ghosts airs Thursdays at 8:30 Eastern on CBS, then streams episodes on Paramount+.