After nearly a year off the air, Quinta Brunson’s Emmy-winning comedy Abbott Elementary made its triumphant return to ABC on February 7 with a supersized Season 3 premiere that delivered lots of laughs, new characters, unexpected twists, and exciting guest stars — including Philadelphia Eagles players Jalen Hurts, Brandon Graham, and Jason Kelce.
“Jalen Hurts had emailed us in Season 2 and said that he was a big fan of the show. And Quinta is always looking for any way to make the show more Philly. It’s incredibly important to her,” Justin Halpern, one of Abbott Elementary‘s showrunners, told Decider over Zoom. “It’s funny, because ABC is like ‘Put somebody huge in the premiere!’ Your first thought isn’t the Philadelphia Eagles. But Quinta was like, ‘This could organically happen within Abbott Elementary‘…and it all kind of worked out nicely for us.”
The starting quarterback and his NFL teammates were undoubtedly one of the premiere’s biggest jaw-dropping reveals, but they weren’t the only major surprise. Season 3 also kicks off with a significant — slightly jarring — time jump, which Halpern says is a direct result of Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA strike delays.
Rather than starting the new school year in September, Ava (Janelle James), Melissa (Lisa Ann Walter), Gregory (Tyler James Williams), Jacob (Chris Perfetti), Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph), and Mr. Johnson (William Stanford Davis) welcome their camera crew back to school after a robbery in downtown Philadelphia five months prior left them saving for new equipment. The staff then heads to the library for a presentation, and we meet new school district employees Simon (Benjamin Norris), Emily (Kimia Behpoornia), Manny (Josh Segarra), and — buckle up — Janine (Brunson)!
In honor of Abbott‘s highly-anticipated return and an eventful Season 3 premiere, co-creators and co-showrunners Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker hopped on a Zoom call with Decider to break down the episode’s biggest moments and tease what the series has in store.
DECIDER: How much of an impact did the strike have on the show storywise? We know episode count was impacted, but was that five-month time jump a direct result of the strike or was it always the plan?
JUSTIN HALPERN: It was a direct result. The story we wanted to tell before the strike is still the story that we told, but we had to be creative in the premiere to figure out how we were going to do the time jump. We just thought it would be weird if we’re like, “It’s the first day of school: February 7th!” When you have 22 episodes, you can have a lot of episodes about one character and sort of do a deep dive on something they’re going through or feeling that’s nuanced or subtle and doesn’t move the larger story forward. In 14 episodes, you can’t do quite as many of those. So I think it expedited a little bit of how we were going to do the larger arc of the season.
PATRICK SCHUMACKER: Yeah, I mean Janine’s agreement to take the fellowship was definitely not something that was gonna be in the premiere. It was going to be a little bit more of a ramp to that. But coming back after the strike…it was nuts. It was like whiplash. It was five months of walking in circles around the studio lot for three hours a day. Well, that’s what I did. Justin did a lot more because he was on the Guild board. And then all of a sudden they lifted the back to work order. And that morning we got a call from Warner Brothers’ current executives, and they were like, “How quickly can you start the writers’ room? And how many episodes can you do?” Five days later, we were back in person in a writers’ room.
JH: Super tan.
PS: So tan so buff. Yeah. I had a full head of hair. So did Justin. [Laughs] And then we were like, off to the races. We had briefly chatted about how are we going to treat this abbreviated season, knowing it was going to be something between 13 and 18 episodes. But also, the timing of it all was super important. In an ideal world, Abbott is a fall show that can mirror the actual calendar year. Most teachers that I talk to are like, “The school year is just built around like holidays and certain date markers.” So we want them to line up in an ideal world. And this afforded us the opportunity to keep that going while also acknowledging that there’s a lot missing. We noodled on a couple of different versions of the why for starting the season in the middle. There were some more on-the-nose versions of it that did involve strike stuff, but that felt a little bit undesirable having lived it. So we landed on on this, and it felt like the theft of the camera equipment was something that like The Office couldn’t get away with, or Parks and Rec couldn’t get away with. It’s very specific to Abbott, which felt really delicious to us.
JH: I was just imagining in my head. We never see the cameraman, you know? I’m imagining in my head, like, this is some version of Mark Duplass. [Laughs] And he’s definitely gonna get robbed in this area of Philly because he’s not paying attention.
We have to talk about the Philadelphia Eagles cameos. How did those three gents wind up on the show?
JH: Jalen Hurts had emailed us in Season 2 and said that he was a big fan of the show. And Quinta is always looking for any way to make the show more Philly. It’s incredibly important to her. So when we were thinking of big guest stars — it’s funny because ABC is like, “Put somebody huge in the premiere!” Your first thought isn’t the Philadelphia Eagles. But Quinta was like, “This could organically happen within Abbott Elementary.” So we were careful about the way that we work them in. And once we had Jalen and we knew this is what we wanted to do for a career day, then getting Jason and Brandon to join along was obviously much easier, and it all kind of worked out nicely for us.
Well, I hope that Abbott gets a shoutout on Jason and Travis’ podcast. You gotta get that New Heights clip!
JH: [Laughs] You never know, we might!
On top of star-studded cameos we meet three new characters, district employees Manny, Emily, and Simon. All three actors are wonderful, but I was thrilled to see Josh Segarra cast. Because of roles in The Other Two and The Big Door Prize the initial reaction to his casting was, “We’re getting a himbo gym teacher!” So to see him play this sort of straight, capable man in power was so refreshing. Why did Abbott want to cast him in this role?
JH: Well, the dude can act. He is a really good actor. And I think for us, we wanted someone who felt like we needed someone who felt very warm, but also a little suspect. In that opening we needed Janine to be a little bit weary of the school district. The district has been our big boogeyman for the first two seasons of the show.
PS: And for her to be like, “This feels a little bit too good to be true. I like the validation that you guys are constantly giving me. I don’t get that here. And that’s weird.”
JH: I think it was really important for us to have somebody who could nail both parts of that and Josh can do it. And there weren’t a lot of people we felt could. So I think that’s the trick to that character — we’re not totally sure if he is the classic district all talk bullshit artist or he actually means what he’s saying.
Is a Manny and Janine romance a possibility or do I need to calm down and let TV characters be co-workers?
JH: [Laughs] I would say you’ve got to watch. I can’t spoil anything. But but you also gotta let TV characters be coworkers.
Speaking of romance and coworkers, what the hell Gregory? Can you tease the future of their will-they-won’t-they for us?
JH:Well, here’s what I’ll say: If in that premiere Janine had come up to him and said, “Actually, I’ve been thinking about it. I would like to take you up on this offer after three months,” and he said yes to that, that is a character who has not grown as a human being at all. We always think of our will-they-won’t-they not in terms of here’s when we’re gonna get them together and here’s when we aren’t. We try to think of it in terms of here’s how Janine is growing as a character. Here’s how Gregory is growing as a character. And as we’re charting their arcs, where would they naturally kind of cross. Because she might be ready in a place and a time when he’s not, and vice versa. I know it sounds like a cop-out answer, but we don’t think of like, “When are we going to get them together?” We just think about “Well, would these characters organically get together in this moment?”
While we’re on Gregory, I must bring up “Jeremy Allen Black,” a perfect 10/10 joke. Who’s responsible and is it Ayo Edebiri approved?
PS: That was Ava Coleman — writer Ava.
Not principal Ava.
PS: This is the bane of real-world Ava Coleman’s existence, that everyone just assumes principal Ava Coleman was named after her, but she actually joined us in Season 2 as a writer. But yeah, writer Ava Coleman is responsible for that joke. And I don’t know about Ayo…did she give a seal of approval?
JH: I don’t know. That’s so funny, because when we were going around award shows we were seeing Jeremy Allen White everywhere. Everywhere we were, he was there too. Quinta and Ayo are so close, I’m sure she probably talked to her about it.
Speaking of Ava she has an amazing dance scene in the premiere. The spotlight and overall energy reminded me you have some iconic musical talent on your cast. Sheryl Lee Ralph is a star. I’ve seen Tyler Jim Williams rap. Would you ever consider doing a musical episode?
PS: Well, I wouldn’t rule it out entirely. I mean, we haven’t. We haven’t talked that much about specifically a musical episode. But I certainly think given that we adhere to the rules of a mockumentary pretty stringently, it would definitely have to be something where it’s a production being put on at the school, and that’s something that sort of breaks reality, as sort of classic MGM musicals do. But I think we can say that if you’re a fan of of Sheryl’s singing this season, you’re gonna be in for a treat.
With the success of the show is there like a Santa Claus-length scroll of people begging to guest star and one for dream casting? I saw big names like Solange and Niecy Nash floated as relatives of Gregory, Daniel Radcliffe as Mr. Johnson’s son, Halle Berry as his girlfriend, and more. Do you guys want to throw anyone in the ring?
JH: There’s definitely people that I pitch to quit and non-stop where she’s like, “Stop pitching me this person, they’re not going to be on it.”
PS: Yeah we’re pretty judicious, because you’re right. We’ve been very, very blessed. We get contacted a lot through our casting department from actors that are very, very eager to be on the show. And it’s hard to say no, but we do try and be as judicious as possible and say, “Hey, if it doesn’t make absolute sense for this world, we should probably shy away from from casting that person — to play themselves that is.”
JH: You touched on one thing. We constantly are pitching crazy people to be Mr. Johnson’s relatives. So whenever we finally do show one of Mr. Johnson’s relatives, that is definitely going to be some sort of stunt casting. [Laughs]
Before we go can you tease the season ahead at all?
JH: You’re gonna get a couple of really, really surprising guest stars. You’re going to get one guest star that is going to shock you, and it’s also going to shock our cast members.
New episodes of Abbott Elementary Season 3 premiere Wednesdays on ABC with next-day streaming on Hulu.