SPOILER ALERT: This story contains spoilers for the Season 3 premiere of “Abbott Elementary.”
When a network sitcom about a group of public school teachers sets out to make its big comeback after a monthslong strike delay, an issue arises.
“Some shows are going to be able to return with no problem,” says “Abbott Elementary” creator and star Quinta Brunson, “because they’re not going by a school calendar. But we can’t even play with the summertime!”
Season 2 of the Philadelphia-set comedy ran for 22 episodes, from September 2022 to April 2023, which created room for familiar childhood fanfare like Halloween celebrations, fundraisers and Teacher Appreciation Week. The show’s writers intended to reconvene on May 2, but that ended up becoming Day 1 of the WGA strike. When they finally started working on Season 3 in October, they knew they couldn’t abandon the rhythm they had established.
“If you dip your toe into continuity and start matching up episodes with the actual times they’re going to be released, you’ve made this social contract with the audience,” says co-showrunner Justin Halpern. But it wasn’t as simple as starting the Season 3 story near its Feb. 7 premiere date and pretending the fall semester never happened.
“We have to answer for where we’ve been. The audience deserves to get their whistle wet with what happened in those five months off,” Brunson says. “I had some ideas about time-jumping, but what’s the justification? What’s the most creative way? That’s what I came into the writers’ room presenting.”
The writers landed not only the most creative way to explain why there’s no footage from those months, but what Brunson calls “the most Philly way.”
Throughout its first two seasons, “Abbott Elementary” consistently references a group of camera operators who follow the teachers around, hence the show’s mockumentary format. So in the Season 3 premiere, it’s revealed that after following Janine (Brunson), Gregory (Tyler James Williams) and Jacob (Chris Perfetti) to an after-work hang in a “a rough area” at the start of the school year, the crew got robbed. “They thought it’d be cute to walk around West Philly at night with all this camera equipment,” Ava (Janelle James) explains. “Hell, I’d have helped rob you if I was there. Anyway, here we are, five months later, because that’s how long it takes for three people with art degrees to save up for new cameras.”
“At one point, we did talk about a teachers strike,” says co-showrunner Patrick Schumacker. “We had an idea for that even before the writers strike happened, but it felt too winky, too meta.”
Brunson was relieved to find another solution. “Honestly, after the strike ended, I never wanted to hear the word ‘strike’ again,” she says. “And it’s a little inside baseball. I really try to keep to the ‘Abbott’ bubble; it’s just a sitcom about these teachers, and for us, it’s always more interesting to play in their more immediate drama.”
Speaking on the struggles underfunded teachers face, Halpern points out that “inherent in the core of the show is labor being devalued in the most extreme way, at least in this country. I don’t think we needed to put an extra layer on that.”
So instead of putting Janine on the picket lines, Season 3 picks up with the eager but often insecure second-grade teacher making a major, plot-twisting decision: After spending the first three years of her career trying to circumnavigate the school district’s lack of support for its teachers, Janine accepts a job with the district, optimistic that she can finally make real change there.
“It was always in my head that Janine would one day go work for the district. I thought it could be a fun shake-up; I just didn’t know when,” Brunson says. Initially, it seemed that the arc would require several episodes of setup, but the strike-induced time jump helped her pull it off in a matter of minutes by packing it into a “fun premiere full of things you wouldn’t expect. It’s flashy!”
The twist allowed Brunson to play Janine in a new way. “Her hair is different. She’s dressing different. We see immediately what kind of growth has happened for her in the past five months,” she says. “From what I’ve seen online or from people I’ve talked to, they have no idea. They’re not guessing what happens. And for people who have seen it already, there’s alarm on their faces.”
Janine leaving Abbott isn’t the only shock of the premiere. Ava gets a transformation of her own, debuting a new no-nonsense persona after spending her summer at Harvard (rather, hanging out on the Harvard campus while getting an education degree online via Education Connection). Though the teachers of Abbott Elementary have been begging Ava to actually do her job since she started as principal, they’re horrified that she’s all of a sudden begun enforcing arbitrary district mandates and taking away free periods to increase productivity.
It doesn’t last, of course: The teachers trap her in the gym and play Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up,” and she can’t resist following the song’s directions. When the camera crew returns five months later, Ava is herself again, wearing fake glasses with her eyes printed on them to hide that she’s napping on the job.
“We always wanted to do the idea of, ‘What if Ava became super efficient?’ This felt like a way to do that without making it a real storyline we had to deal with,” Brunson says, “because we do want her to be the same old person we know and love. Showing who Ava was at the beginning of the year versus who she is now allowed us to do better storytelling.”
And then there’s Gregory, whose romantic advances Janine turned down in the Season 2 finale because she wasn’t ready to explore her feelings for him, as strong as they were. The Season 3 premiere sees Janine try to strike things back up again, but Gregory has moved on. Things get doubly awkward when Janine goes to work for the district, which Gregory misinterprets to mean that Janine is no longer interested in being friends until she gently corrects him at the end of the episode.
“We’re putting a lot of faith in the audience,” Brunson says. “We’re not seeing Janine and Gregory talk to each other a ton in this premiere, but we trust the relationship that the audience knows they have. My hope is that they understand Gregory being like, ‘Wait, what? Last year was this, and now it’s this? Maybe it’s best to just chill.’ Playing with time was a fun way to get them back to being cool again. In my dating life, there’d be people I’d date, then not talk to for five months, then all of a sudden you spin the block with this person. I really try to make Janine and Gregory a realistic portrayal of dating in your 20s.”
While the time jump proved fruitful for those reasons, it also came with a shortened season. Schumacker points out that having 13 episodes instead of 22 prevented the writers from “getting into the guts of what it’s like at a school district” as thoroughly as they had explored the politics of charter schools in Season 2.
To make sure they hit the highlights of how public school administration works, the “Abbott Elementary” writers spoke to a recently elected Los Angeles Unified School District board member who had also met with them on Season 1 when she was still teaching in a classroom. And before they even made it back to the writers’ room, they spent time with teachers who joined the WGA picket lines in solidarity.
After a day marching alongside the head of United Teachers Los Angeles, Schumacker made a realization. “The school district has been such a boogeyman in our show, but the reality is that as voters, we do not elect politicians who want to give money to the school district,” he says. “So we wanted to show that if you bring in people who really want to make a change, there are things they can do, but there are limits. And if you want that to change, you need to vote for people who are going to change the way we fund education.”
But when “Abbott Elementary” does address those timely topics, the laughs still come first. The writers “never want to make this a ‘very special episode’ kind of show,” Halpern says, and Schumacker provides an example: “We have an episode coming up this season that deals with drug use, but we kept banging the drum: ‘This is going to be funny.’ I think people are going to be shocked.”