[This story contains spoilers from the third season premiere of Abbott Elementary.]
Major change has come to Abbott Elementary as the show’s lead character, Janine Teagues, played by series creator and Emmy Award-winning actress Quinta Brunson, finds herself outside of the classroom and inside the oft-alluded-to school district at the start of the ABC sitcom’s third season.
“We’re focusing a lot on the district [this season],” co-showrunner Patrick Schumacker tells The Hollywood Reporter. “We’re going to start to explore that world … and Janine is going to see what that type of bureaucracy is in counterpoint to the bureaucracy that she has to deal with at Abbott.”
That plotline is set up in the one-hour season three premiere of Abbott Elementary, which aired at 9 p.m. E.T. on Wednesday. The episode sees the return of series regulars Sheryl Lee Ralph, Lisa Ann Walter, Tyler James Williams, Janelle James, Chris Perfetti and William Stanford Davis — and the introduction of guest stars Josh Segarra, Kimia Behpoornia and Benjamin Norris, as the district members who entice Janine to participate in their fellowship program.
Janine finds the grass may not necessarily be greener on the other side, however, as her decision to join the district temporarily creates even more ambiguity between her and Gregory (Williams) after they shared a kiss in season two. And when her suggestion of introducing a career day at Abbott Elementary goes a little too well after Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts shows up, the eager educator finds herself still learning that the best laid plans often go awry.
Here, series co-showrunners Justin Halpern and Schumacker talk to THR about that Hurts cameo, vetting guest stars and what the success of Abbott Elementary, which averaged 9.1 million viewers per episode in its second season, proves. “I hope that to executives and to businesspeople across our industry we have destroyed the fallacy that a show with a majority Black cast can’t be a four-quadrant hit and can’t make a ton of money for the company that is producing it,” says Halpern.
How did you come to the decision to do a one-hour premiere this season and was it harder or easier to do a longer episode?
JUSTIN HALPERN It wasn’t any harder to do in terms of the storytelling, because that’s how we came up with the one-hour premiere. We were breaking the episode and Quinta was like, “This feels like a two-parter to me.” And then we were looking at it, and we’re like, “Yep this is definitely a two-parter.” It was, logistically, in terms of the air schedule and commercial breaks and stuff, a giant pain in the ass. But the creative is what drove the one hour-episode. So that was not a problem.
How do you approach a third season of a show like this that has been so well received by audiences and critics alike?
PATRICK SCHUMACKER We were fortunate enough to finish season two relatively early, so we had a little bit of time to talk season three with the entire staff conceptually. The district, focusing on that and making it a big part of season three, was kind of always in the cards. And then of course the strike happened, and we had to rethink things as far as timeline is concerned. That’s how we landed on the time jump of it all. Season two being a fall show and doing 22 episodes was such a gift, because you could have the actual calendar year for the viewers match up exactly to the school year for our teachers. That’s always kind of wonderful, because you can do your winter holiday episode during the actual winter holidays.
So when the strike happened and kind of pushed everything back about five months, that’s how we ended up coming up with the stolen equipment storyline and the time jump. We wanted to see the beginning of the school year. I think it’s a nice tradition to do development day to kick off every season. So we still were able to have that, but then also kind of have your cake and eat it too, because then all of a sudden, there’s a time jump. The hardest thing was breaking that out. You’re talking to a room full of comedy writers who mostly understand linear storytelling. So you’re up at the board with multicolored arrows pointing to other dimensions and things like that. And it was like, “okay, this is actual rocket science.”
How do you feel about the terms WGA ultimately agreed to to end the strike and have there been any noticeable effects on your writer’s room?
HALPERN I can definitely say that I think the new contracts make the people who work on the show more secure, and I think when people feel financially more secure, then they’re able to spend that energy on creativity. One of the things that is a fundamental disconnect between the business aspect of the entertainment industry and the people who are actually making the shows is that you can just grind down the price, grind down the price, grind down the price, and they’ll just keep making the same thing. They’ll keep working harder. And I think that there is a significant emotional labor that comes with financial insecurity. If you are spending that emotional labor on being worried about whether or not you can pay your rent, whether or not you can afford to have a car and transportation, then your creative work is going to be worse. So I hope that through these contracts that we’ve won, it will bring some financial security that will free up some creativity in people’s brains to focus on other things.
One of the big moments in the season three premiere is the cameo by Jalen Hurts and his teammates, Jason Kelce and Brandon Graham. How did you pull that off?
HALPERN Jalen Hurts’ people actually emailed us in the middle of season two to say that he was a big fan of the show, and if there was ever an opportunity he’d be interested in being on it. Sports are a big part of Philadelphia. It’s in the DNA of the city. Our characters talk about it. Quinta said before, “You can’t do a Philly show and not have them talking about sports.” So we’re doing this career day episode, and we want a fun, exciting guest star for our premiere — but not just a famous person because they’re famous. So we were like, “oh, it’d be so great if what fucks up her career day is the fact that she ends up getting somebody who’s too famous in terms of Philly.” So we reached out and they were preparing for the playoffs, so we knew we couldn’t fly him out here. So we said, “Let’s just have it happen via Zoom and that’ll be how we do it.” And then it just all kind of worked out. We have an amazing crew and they made it happen.
Guest starring on this show has become a thing among actors. How many requests are you getting on a regular basis and how do you vet them?
SCHUMACKER Oh, man. I think Quinta probably gets contacted a thousand times more than she even lets on. Justin and I only hear of a small fraction of the celebrities and very, very famous people wanting to be on the show. But I think all of us are in agreement, and this comes down from Quinta, that if it can’t make sense in the context of what we’re treating as a real documentary about a real school in Philadelphia, then 95 percent of the people who want to be on the show and play themselves, like their real-life counterpart essentially, it doesn’t really make a ton of sense. We don’t want to break that sort of precious truth that we’re trying to seek out with the show. That said, sometimes it’s very hard to resist.
HALPERN I get most excited for the sports ones. Like when we had Andre Iguodala in the second season, I was like, that’s so fucking cool.
Josh Segarra, Kimia Behpoornia and Benjamin Norris make their guest star debuts in the season three premiere. How did they come to join the series?
HALPERN The district had always been part of what Quinta wanted to do in the third season. The district’s been the boogeyman in the first two seasons. So we wanted to actually show the audience, “hey, here’s what’s going on there,” and also, here’s what’s happening all across the country, which is that young progressive people are trying to enter bureaucracies and make them better, and what does that look like. What are the actual problems? Who’s the real boogeyman? Also, it’s going to take a lot to get Janine out of Abbott, even temporarily, so we needed a group of people who were so compelling to her and so like-minded that it just felt like, I gotta give this a shot.
Janine also finally shoots her shot with Gregory in the premiere. He reveals that he’s put a pin in the possibility of a romance with her, but have you all as executive producers?
HALPERN Well, I would say this to you. We think first about the characters themselves and their arcs, and then we try to see if they would naturally be in a place where the stars would align. We wouldn’t fight it as the writing staff, but we’re not going to force it if that’s not where the character is. I think you lose the audience’s trust when you start having characters behave in a way that you haven’t earned or you haven’t shown them ready for. So, as frustrating as I can see it be if you are a hardcore Gregory-Janine shipper in the moment, I think that we’re hoping that you’re along for the ride for these characters and that if they do get together or if they don’t, you will understand why.
On a broader note, with the recent cancellation of Rap Sh!t and Issa Rae’s TIME magazine cover, there’s been a lot of conversation around shows with majority Black casts not being seen as having as much value to networks and studios and not being given a chance to thrive. In the midst of that discussion, you have Abbott Elementary that’s on its third season and has been embraced by the industry. How do you feel this show fits into that larger context?
HALPERN That’s really interesting. He and I probably aren’t the best people to speak on this, but what I will say is that I hope that to executives and to businesspeople across our industry we have destroyed the fallacy that a show with a majority Black cast can’t be a four-quadrant hit and can’t make a ton of money for the company that is producing it. That is such a pervasive thing that has been throughout our business since the dawn of the business, and I hope that that is the lesson that they take away. There’s so much copycat shit in this business where it’s like, “Oh, Friends is a big hit, we have to go make the next Friends.” So I hope that the copycat shit that people take from this is that you can make a show with a majority Black cast and it can be a giant hit that will make you tons.
Abbott Elementary airs new episodes Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on ABC and streams next day on Hulu.