How the ‘Abbott Elementary’ Sets Expanded Beyond the School Walls in Season 3

TheWrap magazine: “You don’t want your show to be claustrophobic,” production designer Michael Whetstone says of introducing new scenery

Quinta Brunson in "Abbott Elementary" (ABC)
Quinta Brunson in "Abbott Elementary" (ABC)

When “Abbott Elementary’s” Janine Teagues (Quinta Brunson) leaves Willard R. Abbott Elementary School at the beginning of Season 3 to work for the school district, her departure created a unique opportunity for production designer Michael Whetstone and art director Suzan Wexler to expand the scope of the Philadelphia-set ABC comedy beyond the established elementary school sets.

“Season 3, we got out in the world. We got out of the school,” Whetstone said. “Her leaving [Abbott Elementary], I always viewed it as a little bit running away from commitment — not only with her job but in her personal life.”

The design team spent approximately three weeks “building a massive set” for the school district offices, which were first introduced in the season’s third episode, “Gregory’s Garden Goofballs.” The new set was a stark contrast to the warm, familiar and lived-in atmosphere inside the colorful Abbott Elementary walls — an intentional choice by Whetstone and Wexler, whose production design decisions are informed by the episode scripts, key character developments and conversations with Brunson.

Quinta Brunson and Tyler James Williams in "Abbott Elementary" (ABC)
Quinta Brunson and Tyler James Williams in “Abbott Elementary” (ABC)

Temporarily placing Janine in a grayer, more monotone environment amid her uncertain relationship status with Abbott schoolteacher Gregory (Tyler James Williams) while she acclimates to her new coworkers and job only helped to inform the character’s personal journey. 

“The set we built for [the third episode] is very, very, very different,” Whetstone said of the corporate-like school district surroundings. “It’s very modern, it’s concrete. It’s in a different part of Philly than you’ve ever seen in ‘Abbott Elementary,’ and so to see Janine be in that world with these other characters was really interesting. You saw all season long how she really just wanted to work on the problems at Abbott even though she was at the school district.” 

But completing those sets within the allotted time frame was a tall order, Wexler acknowledged. Other production challenges she and Whetstone faced in Season 3 included the bar, which became the de facto “Abbott Elementary” communal hangout spot (and will stick around for Season 4) and the giant wooden slide in the penultimate episode, “Smith Playground.” It was inspired by a real one in Philadelphia’s East Fairmount Park and served as the site of a crucial scene between Janine and Gregory.

That set had to be “perfect,” Whetstone said, because Brunson frequently referred to the characters’ heartwarming moment on the slide as “the emotional crux of the entire season.”

“[The slide] was a big, big deal and that was a nail-biter,” Wexler said. “We finally did manage to get photocopies of some plans that had been done 20 years ago. The architect that had done the renovation on the slide had passed away and nobody had taken over that architectural firm, so [the company] didn’t exist anymore.”

Added Whetstone: “We solidly rely on our EPs to get us a script or an outline or a kernel of an idea as early as possible, and they knew this slide was going to be a big feat.”

Brunson, who wears many hats on “Abbott Elementary” as creator, executive producer, writer and No. 1 on the call sheet, was a vital resource for Whetstone and Wexler. They also credited executive producers Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker and line producer Scott Sites for being advocates for the art department.

Quinta Brunson, Tyler James Williams and William Stanford Davis on “Abbott Elementary” (Disney/Gilles Mingasson)

“There are some shows that just aren’t that way. They kind of don’t care what it looks like,” Wexler said. “But Quinta is always complementary. Every time we bring her through a brand new set, she’s like, ‘Oh my god, you guys, I can’t even believe this. This is great!’”

With Season 3 in the rearview mirror, Whetstone and Wexler have already begun blueprinting the upcoming fourth season, building upon what they achieved this past year.

“Part of growing as a show is you don’t want your show to be claustrophobic,” Whetstone said. “You don’t want everything inside that school.”

This story first appeared in the Comedy Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the Comedy Series issue here.

Larry David photographed by Mary Ellen Matthews
Larry David photographed by Mary Ellen Matthews


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