While Quinta Brunson already receives a lot of credit for the success of “Abbott Elementary,” having become the second Black woman to ever win the Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series last year, not enough esteem is given to her acting performance as protagonist Janine Teagues.
Such is the case with the majority of women who star in the television comedies they have created. Though the last couple decades have seen more and more shows with more and more women wearing more and more hats, since 2000 only Tina Fey (“30 Rock”) and Phoebe Waller-Bridge (“Fleabag”) have won the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series Emmy for a role they wrote themselves. While on the men’s side of things, half of the last 10 Emmys for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series were given to someone who functions as both creator and star of their show.
While there are many factors for why this is the case, it still would have been nice to see gamechangers like Issa Rae (“Insecure”), Lena Dunham (“Girls”), Pamela Adlon (“Better Things”), and even fellow 2023 Emmy nominee Natasha Lyonne (“Russian Doll,” “Poker Face”) held in the same regard as Emmy winners Jason Sudeikis (“Ted Lasso”), Bill Hader (“Barry”), and Donald Glover (“Atlanta”).
Brunson has already received a Golden Globe and Independent Spirit Award this year for her acting performance on ABC’s newest cornerstone, but it is worth reiterating that on top of the difficult job running the show as both a writer and producer, her character Janine is the beating heart of “Abbott Elementary.”
Looking at many of the female comedy performances the Television Academy recognizes, one could infer that members respond most to a certain kind of anti-heroine. Iconic Emmy-winning characters like Carrie Bradshaw (“Sex and the City”), Liz Lemon (“30 Rock”), Selina Meyer (“Veep”), and Fleabag (“Fleabag”) would hardly be described as empathetic people. Most of the audience definitely still roots for them, but the chaos they cause can’t so quickly be written off as well-intended.
Whereas Janine Teagues is cut from the same cloth as Leslie Knope (“Parks and Recreation”), one of the great comedic performances to have never won an Emmy. Brunson’s character is all empathy—if she is causing chaos, it’s because she continually understimates just how little support Philadelphia is actually willing to give its public school system. The role often requires Brunson to be the straight man, especially opposite magnetic characters like Principal Ava (Janelle James), but her wide-eyed reaction shots are the perfect tag for every joke.
The “Abbott Elementary” audience can often feel the fun that comes from an ensemble with such perfect chemistry, but in Season 2 especially, Brunson’s performance adds more layers. It is not the easiest task to create a show that clearly get the message across that the antagonist is bureaucracy, but Brunson achieves such pathos in the way she embodies Janine feeling a rain cloud cast over her sunny disposition, as another bullshit hurdle stymies her ability to effect change in her community.
The introduction of her family, played by exciting guest stars like Ayo Edebiri and Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series nominee Taraji P. Henson gives Brunson more to play with, showing how even when Janine is retreating into herself, the actress can still find the laugh. But the most important Season 2 development is her character’s growing relationship with colleague Gregory Eddie (played by Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series nominee Tyler James Williams).
Helping describe the alchemy that makes the show a rare network hit, and the levels of consideration Brunson is giving to her character arc, “Abbott Elementary” makeup department head Alisha L. Baijounas said to IndieWire, “I have a thing for Janine and Gregory’s relationship, so I kept hoping it was going to develop. And it was so funny having Quinta in the chair because I could always give her my opinion about how I wanted it to go.” She added, “Getting to know what was coming and where she was comfortable taking Janine, and what her arc was going to be, being able to have that conversation with her — that was one of my secret weapons.”
Meanwhile, Brunson is the not-so-secret weapon of “Abbott Elementary.” As Janine Teagues, she skillfully allows herself to be the butt of the joke, and lets her incredibly talented ensemble each get their chance in the spotlight, while carrying TV’s best new will-they-won’t-they romantic storyline, and best conveying the ethos of the prescient workplace sitcom.