SPOILER ALERT! This post contains details from the Season 3 premiere of Abbott Elementary.
A lot has changed for the teachers at Willard R. Abbott Elementary since we saw them last.
Abbott Elementary returned to ABC on Wednesday after nearly 10 months off the air with an hour-long Season 3 premiere to catch audiences up on everything we’ve missed. For starters, we missed the first half of the school year. The writers cleverly explained the strike-induced production delay by explaining that the documentary crew had their equipment stolen and had spent the last few months saving up to by new cameras and return to the school. (Read more about that decision in this story.)
During that time, Janine took on a fellowship at the school district and has returned to Abbott to implement her first initiative — career day. Everything appears to be going swimmingly, until all hell breaks loose when Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts makes a surprise virtual appearance in Ms. Schemmenti’s classroom. Suddenly, no one is interested in the botanist, the cosmetologist, or basically anyone else who has come to demonstrate their professions to the students.
Things get a bit awkward when Gary uses that moment to try to propose to Melissa, who says no. Just in time for defensive end Brandon Graham and center Jason Kelce to witness as they come looking for Hurts so they can start practice.
Meanwhile, Ava is trying to be more responsible after getting an actual education degree on Harvard’s campus (as in, she earned her degree from an online university while physically in Cambridge), but the rest of the teachers aren’t having it. After several failed attempts, they finally manage to figure out how to bring out the old Ava by playing Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up” in the gym…who knew it was that easy?
The Season 3 premiere also gives an update on Gregory and Janine, who find themselves back in the friend zone after Janine expressed at the end of the summer that she might want to try to explore their feelings for one another, but Gregory said he’d already moved on.
Executive producers Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker broke down the entire Season 3 premiere with Deadline in the interview below, as well as the linked story above.
DEADLINE: After such a long delay, I imagine returning to the writers room was a bit hectic. Can you describe that process? When did it hit you that Abbott would face this unique problem of no longer aligning with the school year?
JUSTIN HALPERN: I mean, to be honest, while we were on strike, the strike was kind of all I was thinking about. I’m on the WGA board. So I was talking with a lot of writers and and dealing with the contracts, and the negotiating committee. So my brain really was just 24/7 on, ‘How do we get a good deal?’ I, personally, hadn’t really had even a second to take a breath and think about it. Because I was just mired in strike sh*t. I don’t know, Pat, did you think about it at all during the strike?
PATRICK SCHUMACKER: I mean, I certainly had anxiety about it over the strike. I mean, I feel like at a certain point you just, for your own sanity, had to sort of surrender and just say, ‘Hey, we’re gonna roll with whatever scenario. At the network, they were sort of running 1,000 different scenarios. Like, ‘Okay, if the strike ends here, we can come back we can get X amount of episodes. This is when the premiere is going to be.’ And it was just like, in constant flux. Our executive friends over at Warner Brothers, their walls were in their offices were papered with hypothetical schedules. They scheduled it within an inch of its life. Then the second that the strike was over, and we were allowed to go back to work, we got a call and it was like, ‘Okay, when can you start the room and how many episodes can you do?’ Five days later, we were off to the races in a room in person writing Season 3.
HALPERN: So then I guess, I would say, in true writer fashion, we put it off as long as possible. And then once we were faced with it, we buckled down and actually broke it.
DEADLINE: So Quinta teased at the Emmys that her dream guest stars were in this episode. I truly never imagined that would be Jalen Hurts, Brandon Graham, and Jason Kelce. How did that idea come about?
HALPERN: Well, the thing that’s great about Quinta is, for her, great guests are someone who makes the show much better, that people within the show would be excited to see. And one of the most important things to her about the show, which then consequently became one of those important things to us about the show, is that it’s Philly to its core. You’ll notice we have so many sports discussions in the show. It’s because that’s what people in Philly talk about. So, when we were like, we want to have something splashy for the premiere…Jalen Hurts’ people had reached out to us last the year and said he was a big fan of the show. So we’d been kind of like thinking about [it]and we’d had Eagle stuff on the show before. So we were like, ‘You know what? Let’s see if we can get him in this show in an organic way.’ I mean, the last thing we ever want to do, I think, is shove something in there that doesn’t feel like it could actually happen in our world. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it needs to seem like it could happen. That was what we were so excited about. These characters would be so excited that Jalen Hurts and Brandon Graham and Jason Kelce in their school, even if it was via zoom. So I think that’s where we started from we started from — a place of character and story and then move from there. We rarely ever — occasionally — but we rarely ever go ‘Oh, who would be a cool celebrity to have in the show?’
DEADLINE: Did it start out as just Jalen then? How did you get all three involved?
HALPERN: It started as Jalen and then we thought it’d be really funny that after the proposal goes wrong, for Brandon Graham and Jason Kelce to be like, ‘Hey, we have practice. What’s going on?’ And then being like, ‘Oh sh*t! Did somebody just propose?’ And, for Melissa’s boyfriend, to have the worst moment of your life be amplified because the Philadelphia Eagles [are there] just felt like a really funny premise.
DEADLINE: One of the things that makes Abbott work so well is the comedic chemistry between the characters. When you were adding three new characters into this season, how did you start to conceptualize where and how they’d fit in?
SCHUMACKER: I think we were looking for characters that would almost immediately work in terms of beckoning Janine over to the other side. It had to work pretty quickly on, for lack of a better term, seducing Janine over to the district side of things. I think these three characters represent like, you know, members of Janine’s tribe. They have very similar likes, and we wanted it to almost seem too good to be true at first. Obviously, for other characters like Barbara, they’re going to be skeptical of any regime at the district, because she has been doing it long enough that it only leads to disappointment in her experience. But then even, this particular group, as sincere as they present, they are able to convince the cynical Barbara Howard that maybe this is a new generation that brings a more steadfast work ethic. They are all genuinely good people, well intentioned, and…a large part of them are Janine Teagues. So, that was what we wanted to accomplish with them. Josh and Ben and Camilla, who play Manny, and Simon, and Emily respectively, just are all fantastic. They all bring their own kind of unique energy to it. It took us a second to find the individual voices of those characters, but once they were cast, it became a heck of a lot easier, so credit to them.
DEADLINE: I thought Janine going to the district would be the new thing that put a wedge between her and Gregory, so the security tape footage really threw me for a loop. Why did Gregory ultimately turn her down?
HALPERN: Well, we wanted Gregory to have grown as well as person. It’s important to us [that] it’s a show about teachers at a school, but it’s also a show about these 20-somethings. So much growth is happening in those years of your life. So for him, we’d shown [when] him he got dumped a couple different times for a couple different reasons. If Jeanine came up to him and said, Hey, you know what? I was actually thinking after the summer that I actually do want to be with you.’ If he said yes to that, then that’s a character who hasn’t grown at all. It’s a red flag that you would just go right back to someone when they just have a change of heart because of something that they’d seen you do. So we wanted to make sure that we were being like, it sounds silly, but we’re being respectful to the characters and their growth. I think you start to lose the audience when your character start behaving inconsistently, where the audience feels like this is not on the path that they’ve been taking this person. I think that’s when you start to lose the audience’s trust. So we spend so much time on this show thinking about the emotional arcs of our characters and in what place they’re in at the moment that this episode is gonna air.
DEADLINE: Speaking of character development, Ava seems to have grown a bit…but by the end of the episode the teachers have found a way to get the old Ava back. How did you decide that simply playing Juvenile’s ‘Back That Azz Up’ would be the thing that made her revert?
HALPERN: That was a big conversation. It was pretty easy to think about why she would become sort of new and improved Ava. Especially when you write comedy in LA, every fourth person you meet is from Harvard. And you will hear about it. There’s sort of a gravitas that comes with saying that you matriculated from Cambridge, and from Harvard. So it was easy to see how she was seduced by saying that she spent a little time there on the campus. But in terms of putting her back, I think that her preferred state as a character is someone who is pretty derelict in duty and is fairly selfish. We wanted to show that this was an awkward fit. She was doing it because she thought it was gonna give her the positive reinforcement that she wanted. But then we were like, ‘What’s the one trigger that can happen that could remind her of how much better her old life was?’ I don’t remember who pitched it.
SCHUMACKER: I think it was Quinta.
HALPERN: Was it Quinta?
SCHUMACKER: Yeah. Ava is like the Winter Soldier. And this is like the word, the code to reset her to release the Ava within. It was an interesting challenge, on the day when we’re shooting it, to find the proper amount of broadness to bring to what’s already a pretty broad idea — to kind of walk that line tonally and watch her transform. We sort of found it in the middle of shooting it where like, at first the transformation was almost happening too easily, and then you with Randall and Janelle and Quinta, we sort of found that stop-start kind of staccato thing. You see like the cracks start starting to come out and then she stops herself, because she’s trying to compose herself. And then she goes back to it and can’t help herself. So I think that like stutter step back to normal, or default Ava, was something that we ended up finding the specifics of on the day when we shot it.
HALPERN: Janelle is also such a gifted actress. I mean, everybody knows she’s really, really funny. She’s an incredible stand-up comedian. But she’s also a really, really gifted actress. So I think in lesser hands, that might not have played, but in Janelle’s hands, she can find it.
Abbott Elementary airs Wednesdays on ABC at 9 p.m. ET/PT.