TV enthusiasts already know that “Abbott Elementary,” ABC’s mockumentary-style half-hour comedy from Quinta Brunson, is best in class. But there’s more to the Emmy-winning sitcom than meets the eye as it delves deeper into its setting within a Philadelphia public school system. In Season 2, “Abbott” has touched on topics from the issue of charter schools to a city-specific mural arts program (explored in Wednesday’s episode), and showrunners Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker previewed that there’s more to come as the series heads into its junior installment.
“We’re going into Season 3 with some ideas of an aspect — that I won’t spoil — of the school system that we want to explore a little bit more,” executive producer Schumacker told TheWrap. He added, laughing, “I think we’re approaching it like ‘The Wire’ — different facets of this ecosystem.”
With five more episodes to go in Season 2, the show’s co-developers teased one more remaining guest star and promised eager fans that the Janine-Gregory romantic arc will make headway following the duo’s kiss at the PECSA conference. Read on for an edited conversation between TheWrap and the EPs, which includes discussion of this week’s episode and how that running joke featuring Ava’s secret bathroom might shape out.
TheWrap: You got the full-season order a bit ago. Did that changed things up for the writers’ room in terms of the season’s arc and how things developed narratively?
JH: We had the blessing of knowing that we were on good footing from the beginning, so I think I would have been shocked had we not gotten that backorder of episodes. We were able to build the season out from the start. The way we do it is we build in a lot of pre-production so Quinta can be there for as much time as possible before production starts, because once production starts, she’s shooting. We have a couple of hiatuses placed in different places where we can sit and talk with her like, “Hey, what are you thinking for the last nine?” And we’ll talk about what we think and just are able to really have her in the room discussing the arc of all the characters. So I think it didn’t really change anything, which is nice.
You’ve gotten the Season 3 renewal, and while Season 2 is airing its latter half, what can you say about Janine and Gregory’s will-they-won’t-they arc and the teachers’ evolving dynamics as a whole?
PS: We have six episodes left to air in Season 2 [now five, after “Mural Arts”], so obviously there’s gonna be some fallout from what happened in the PECSA conference, so I think people will get some answers as to the will-they-won’t-they in the next handful of episodes. As to Season 3, we definitely had an opportunity, because we were ahead a little bit even at the end of the year, that we were able to start talking about bigger picture ideas before we wrapped the writers’ room. Obviously [we] can’t get into any details there, but I can say that when we started Season 2, we were like, “OK, one of the new things that we’re going to do is tackle this idea of charter schools with Legendary Charter.” We’re going into Season 3 with some ideas of an aspect — that I won’t spoil — of the school system that we want to explore a little bit more. I think we’re approaching it like “The Wire” — different facets of this ecosystem.
JH: To the will-they-won’t-they part of it, we look at it and Quinta looks at it as, “What are the arcs of each individual character first?” These are all people in their 20s trying to figure s— out, they’re at different places in their lives, both emotionally and financially. We first focus on each individual character and then we’ll constantly be looking at, “OK, well, what would actually happen if they were in this position at this point in the season?” So we don’t look at it as, “When are we going to get these two together or not get them together?” We look at it as, “Hey, let’s really pay attention to the characters and grow the characters,” so that when we make whatever decision we make, you as an audience believe it and feel like it’s real. These are people in their 20s, like, that s—‘s messy.
With the charter school element, could you talk about the research that went into that, in addition to Quinta drawing from her background as an attendee of the Philadelphia public school system and her mother’s role as kindergarten teacher?
PS: From the beginning, we felt it was really important to research. We did more research on this show than we probably ever have going into a half-hour comedy, but it was important for everybody to make sure we were as authentic as possible. The show got picked up in Season 1, and we’re like, “OK, let’s just talk to as many people from as many facets of the public school system as we can, from all over the country.” We talked to teachers, principals. We talked to someone who was the chief operating officer of a school, which directly led to the penultimate episode of Season 1 when Ava has to present to the school board for more money, which we learned was a thing; that immediately is a story we wanted to tell.
Because of the response testing the pilot, we had a lot of teachers watch the show, and they all felt really seen and it felt authentic to them. At the beginning of the season, we will try to Zoom or meet in person with people who are in it, in the trenches, and that always leads to really great ideas. I hope that we can keep that tradition going. And as the show gains in popularity, those volunteers start coming out of the woodwork, they want to be a part of the show, they want to engage with the writers.
Speaking of the show’s popularity, there are great guest stars — this season with Vince Staples and Leslie Odom Jr. Do people now call up Quinta and ask to be on the show, and how do you field those requests?
JH: Yes. She probably gets requests that she doesn’t even tell us about. One of the many great things about Quinta is that she thinks about what’s the best fit for the show first. A lot of times, we’ve turned down big celebrity pushes to be on the show because it can take you out of a mockumentary to see this giant superstar in your show. It’s like if all of a sudden Jennifer Aniston was playing a character — she didn’t ask to be on the show — you’d be like, “What the f—? This is an inner-city school in Philadelphia.” We do have one more guest star coming this season that is pretty f—ing awesome that I’m very, very excited about, but that was somebody who Quinta was like, “This person would be so good to play this.” That was why we chose them, not because we were like, “Oh, let’s get this celebrity to be in the show.”
With these characters, Season 2 has really explored their individuality, especially as the teachers leave the school, from PECSA to the field trips and the hookah lounge. Are there any other types of settings you’d like to see them in, or is it more that the story comes first and the setting is built around it?
PS: It’s a little bit of both. Our finale of Season 2, I think there are little breadcrumbs — if you’ve been watching the show, maybe you know where we’re going with it.
JH: Towards the end of the season, we like field trips.
PS: Quinta — obviously Philadelphian, born and raised. So when we do the field trip episodes, there are landmarks that she really wants to get in there. There’s places that are really meaningful to her having grown up there that we’ll try to get to. We have the Mural Arts program, which is a huge, huge thing in Philly. Not only regional landmarks, but also cultural touchstones. So sometimes those lead to stories and then sometimes the story ends up begetting some interesting place that we haven’t seen before.
JH: Quinta loves Philly; she genuinely loves the city so much, she’s so deeply tied to it. We love that. The specificity she adds to everything that’s in the show, it’s down to what’s in the vending machines.
With the “Mural Arts” episode, there’s a spotlight on Jacob and the challenges he has as a teacher trying to engage the students, especially being hyper-aware of his privilege and being Type-A. What went behind crafting this storyline?
JH: That one came about because we were talking about how it’s really difficult as a teacher and just a parent to respect the fact that kids live in the moment, but also know that you have to prepare them for the future because you just have a lot more experience than they do and you know where some of these paths lead. That felt like something that Barbara had already learned how to grapple with, Melissa had already learned and Janine lives such in the moment with her kids and her kids are a little younger, so it didn’t feel as prevalent. But it felt right for Jacob because it’s this guy who’s constantly thinking about where-I-am-in-the-zeitgeist and where-I-am-in-this-moment-in-time. Like, where do I fit and where is it going? And so it felt like that was just a really fun conflict to have for him. Jacob’s a really fun character to write because he always wants to do the right thing and he sometimes does not see the forest through the trees.
At the very end of this episode, there’s an offhand mention of Ava’s secret bathroom. Is there a plan for where that running joke is going? Is Mr. Johnson going to stumble upon it and let everyone know?
PS: I don’t think we have an endgame. I’m sure we will. I’d like to think that Mr. Johnson probably knows about it. And again, we have not discussed this in the room, but in my head canon, Mr. Johnson knows all the secrets of the school. He’s a cool guy. He knows not to narc on Ava. He knows where his bread’s buttered, so he’s not going to cross Ava.
JH: Mr. Johnson knows all. I remember when we were first pitching the show, Quinta told us this story about how I think she said the janitor at one of her schools had been a Golden Gloves boxing champion and nobody knew. She was talking about [how] nobody knows anything about the janitor. The janitor is mysteriously here [and] knows everything because they’re cleaning everything.
PS: He’s been at the school possibly the longest of anyone. He has more tenure than Barbara.
JH: The writing staff has really run with that.
The latest episode of “Abbott Elementary” Season 2, “Mural Arts,” will be available for streaming on Hulu beginning Thursday.