The sudden and practically overnight success of Abbott Elementary can be attributed to two factors: creator Quinta Brunson’s vibrant vision and witty writing and the show’s endearing and endlessly entertaining ensemble cast. Aside from being an insightful and creative ideator, Brunson also makes for brilliant lead as the joyful Janine, but every actor truly brings their all to this school-set mockumentary sitcom, and in particular, the ladies leave the largest impression. Whether your favorite is the absurd Ava (Abbott’s problematic principal, portrayed to comedic perfection by Janelle James), the bossy Barbara (a terse but tender-hearted kindergarten teacher depicted by the ever-delightful Sheryl Lee Ralph), or the mighty Melissa (a tough-as-nails second-grade teacher brought to life brilliantly by Lisa Ann Walter), each has a powerful and distinctive personality that feels fully formed from the first minute they’re onscreen, and the actresses responsible for these achievements are all more than worthy of Emmy attention when nominations are announced this July. But the worthiness of their work isn’t in question – the real concern to be considered is how much space there is in the Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series line-up, and if more than one Abbott actress can feasibly land a nod. And maybe even win?
When assessing the field so far, a few names immediately stand out. Last year’s winner, Ted Lasso’s Hannah Waddingham, is a good bet to return, as well as former winner Alex Borstein for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, after sitting 2021 out when Maisel was between seasons. Juno Temple, Waddingham’s co-star on Ted Lasso, also seems likely to earn her second Emmy nomination, while Hannah Einbinder should continue to coattail the success of HBO Max’s Hacks (and her co-star Jean Smart’s never-ending awards sweep). Additionally, Kate McKinnon – an eight-time nominee and two-time winner for Saturday Night Live – should never be counted out. Other former nominees in the running include Barry’s Sarah Goldberg, Saturday Night Live’s Cecily Strong, Atlanta’s Zazie Beetz, and Insecure’s Yvonne Orji, but most would say the first five discussed are the closest to landing nominations. If we do say that Waddingham, Borstein, Temple, Einbinder, and McKinnon are “in,” where does that leave us? Well, given that there are eight available spots for nominations in the Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series line-up, that means three would be left, which means James, Ralph, and Walter could all conceivably get in. But is it that easy? And is one actress in a stronger position than another?
On paper, Ralph seems to have the most notable and illustrious career. Best known for originating the role of Deena Jones in the Broadway musical Dreamgirls – for which she received a Tony Award nomination for Best Actress in a Musical – Ralph has been a mainstay in television for decades, earning acclaim in It’s a Living, Moesha, and, most recently, Instant Mom. Additionally, she’s an Indie Spirit Award winner for Best Supporting Female for the 1990 drama To Sleep with Anger. Her narrative as a long-working – and arguably long-overlooked – actress in film, television, and theater could be enough to earn her her first-ever Emmy nod, but there’s also the internal competition to consider. Though Janelle James doesn’t have as many credits to her name, she’s a recently celebrated comic who is very much on the rise, and to many, her Ava is the standout character from Abbott Elementary, always amusing audiences with her aberrant antics and eccentric endeavors. Many others have made this comparison as well, but a win might not even be out of the question for James given how much buzz she’s accumulated in such a short amount of time, reminiscent of the overwhelming attention Jane Lynch received for the first season of Glee as a similarly fiery authority figure.
When it comes to Walter, though her performance is equally as effective as Ralph’s and James’, those two do seem to be sharing most of the Abbott Elementary Best Supporting Actress buzz – at least, for now. Though Walter arguably doesn’t have quite as prolific a career as Ralph’s accolades-wise, she has quite a few memorable comedy credits to her name, between her turn as the charming Chessy in 1998’s The Parent Trap and as Jennifer Aniston’s character’s sister Debbie in the 2003 Jim Carrey-comedy Bruce Almighty. And, as mentioned earlier, every cast member is a standout on this show, and Walter’s Melissa is undoubtedly another fan favorite, meaning that she still has a fair amount of passion that can’t be ignored entirely. The betting odds for Abbott Elementary Best Supporting Actress bids at the Emmys would favor James, then Ralph, and then Walter, but we’ve still got a few more months of campaigning that await us, and actresses seen as “above” these three could always stumble along the way as well, freeing up another spot.
If there’s one thing to know about Abbott Elementary, it’s that it has defied the odds, time and time again. In an era in which streaming shows dominate the Emmys, Abbott has given network sitcoms a fighting chance once again, and the most unique aspect of its buzz is the fact that it built gradually and naturally, based almost entirely on word-of-mouth. As such, it remains a property that’s hard to properly predict when it comes to awards, as it seems to pick up new fans every single week and could therefore be a passion pick in a number of categories when the Television Academy votes on Emmy nominations in July – something that could benefit all its acting contenders. Though we can make prospective rankings to assess which supporting actress is most “out ahead” in this specific race know that Abbott Elementary is on the ascent everywhere, and there is absolutely room for all three if it truly takes off in the weeks to come.
Photo: ABC/Prashant Gupta