TV & Movies

All Hail Principal Ava

In ABC’s Abbott Elementary, comedian Janelle James ups the ante with her look-at-me, improvisational humor.

In 'Abbott Elementary,' Principal Ava Coleman (played by Janelle James) gives viewers a weekly dose ...
ABC/Prashant Gupta, ABC/Gilles Mingasson, Michael Tran/Getty Images

There are 100 reasons to watch Abbott Elementary, ABC’s new mockumentary-style sitcom. The weekly comedy, which premiered in December, follows the lives of the teachers and staff at a Philadelphia public elementary school as they navigate interpersonal relationships, maddening technology, and, naturally, little to no funding. We get Quinta Brunson’s witty writing. The representation. The Twitter reactions. Tyler James Williams’ Johnny Bravo muscles (everybody might hate Chris, but they love his arms). And one of Abbott’s greatest gifts? Principal Ava, played by comedian Janelle James.

Principal Ava, who scammed her way to the top of the Philadelphia public school’s pyramid, makes the case for being boldly and bravely terrible at her job. She spends most of her time dragging Brunson’s character, Janine, executing the perfect hair-flip-wink-to-camera, and editing TikTok videos. She’s like a less-invested, more vain Michael Scott but dressed in a brightly colored blazer or wrap dress.

James wouldn’t have it any other way. “I was fighting for her to be super fly,” she tells Bustle over the phone. “You ain’t going to catch her slipping and looking like trash. She brought in a camera crew to film the school. Why would she not look the best?” In the words of Aubrey Graham, nails done, hair done, everything (but her job) did.

Sure, her character might be irrational and oblivious — I promise you’ll love her — but she’s no dummy. She’s Abbott’s resident clapback queen who doles out zingers before Janine even realizes she’s the butt of the joke. (She imitates the second-grade teacher’s stern walk, heavy breathing, and suspected inability to twerk.) Does that make a good principal? No. She shouldn’t be working with children. She should be running a pyramid scheme and boasting about it online, with Anna Delvey’s expensive taste and the Tinder Swindler’s global reach. Does that make her a favorite character? Absolutely.

“The worst thing about her is that she’s bad at her job, because it’s impacting kids,” says James, a standup comedian best known for Showtime’s Black Monday and her work with Robin Thede. “But people like her [because] she’s funny, and everybody has a part of them that wishes they could say whatever they want, whenever they want.”

We’ve all dealt with Principal Ava types before, often against our will. She refers to Janine as Lori Lightfoot (I yelled) and spent the school’s funding on a banner for herself (I screamed), but it’s a joy to watch her torment those around her. James knows this. “I’m just doing a composite of a couple people I know and a really bad boss that I had,” she says. “It’s not a made-up character. I’ve met her.”

Some of Ava’s most iconic lines are improvisations from James, like in Episode 2, when Janine takes it upon herself to fix the electrical breaker and passes out. Ava, on seeing Janine on the floor, compares her paleness to a zombie, adding, “Let me back my tasty ass up.”

Thanks in part to those one-liners, Abbott Elementary has already had historical success: It became the first ABC comedy show to quadruple its ratings, going from 2.79 million viewers to 7.1 million, and you can count on it trending on Twitter every week. (The official Twitter TV account identifies itself as a Principal Ava Stan Account. Taste!) “This is a sitcom, so we have the people tuning in who have traditionally always loved sitcoms, [plus] Twitter,” James says. “One of my aunts was telling me, ‘We’ve been talking about it on Facebook since before Twitter.’”

Much of the online response comes in the form of high praise and memes, with many Twitter users also calling out the contrast between chaotic-good Abbott Elementary and chaotic-evil Euphoria, imagining in jest what a crossover episode of the breakout shows would look like. (For the record, the shows have nothing in common except for a school setting.) How would Principal Ava hold up at Euphoria High? Would she even show up, or would she eat them all alive? James has never seen HBO’s Euphoria but always imagined herself as more of a “viewer discretion advised” type of actor. “Abbott is network, and I am streaming,” she says. “I’m cable after 10.”

When the show returns on March 22 after a midseason hiatus, Principal Ava may get some surprising character development, as indicated by an emotional growth spurt in the latest episode. But I do hope she stays awful, too, because she makes a strong, aspirational case for doing the bare minimum.