Abbott Elementary ended its second season with Janine and Gregory actually expressing their feelings for each other — in the Giant Heart exhibit at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, of course — but deciding to remain just friends for the time being. There is also still a question about whether the school is going to be converted into a charter school, though the faculty fought that off in Season 2. While the latter isn’t addressed in the Season 3 premiere, the former is a big part of the first episode.
Opening Shot: Principal Ava Coleman (Janelle James) flings open the doors of Abbott Elementary School in West Philadelphia and says, “What it do, camera crew? Welcome back to the house that Ava built!”
The Gist: The camera crew that’s been filming at Abbott has been away for five months because, well, they had ran into some issues that caused the need for them to save up for and buy new equipment. It’s career day at Abbott, but Ava is indifferent to it; this is something that the district set up, so when she sits in the library for the morning orientation, she wears glasses that will allow her to sleep through it. Then a group of district representatives walk in — including Janine Teagues (Quinta Brunson).
Huh? We flash back five months, before the film crew came to the misfortune that required new equipment. The teachers are gathered before the first day of school, and Ava, wearing glasses and a “HARVARD” sweatshirt that highlights the letters “AVA”, has spent the summer studying there — within the confines of the campus, but at an online school — to get a degree in education. In her studies, she’s found that she’s doing things all wrong and now wants to rule by the book. Part of that is bringing a team in from the district to collaborate on new ideas, led by a new district employee named Manny (Josh Segarra).
As they try to help the teachers, Manny tells Janine that they appreciate all the ideas she’s brought to the district’s attention. Although she’s vowed to approach her third year at Abbott like her hero, Barbara Howard (Sheryl Lee Ralph) does, by working within the limitations she’s given and not expecting more, she’s surprised by Manny’s offer for her to work with the district on a fellowship.
Janine demurs, thinking that she wouldn’t want to leave her students. Fellow third-year teacher Jacob Hill (Chris Perfetti) tells her it’s a big deal, and is a bit annoyed that they didn’t even consider him for it. Gregory Eddie (Tyler James Williams) is a bit less gung-ho about the idea, especially because of they way the two of them left things at the Franklin Institute the previous spring. They seem to be in a good place, with Janine working on herself over the summer (the experiment in cursing, though, just isn’t working) and Gregory working with his dad’s landscaping business.
Meanwhile, Ava’s new by-the-book style is grating on everyone, and not even sending Gregory into her office to flex his guns helps. But Barbara knows exactly what’s needed to break Ava out of this efficiency funk, and enlists Mr. Johnson (William Stanford Davis) to help her.
That’s where the film crew’s footage ends; when we see Janine with Manny and company on career day, there is definite discomfort between Janine and Gregory. Ava, after installing hidden cameras in Gregory’s classroom, has footage that may explain things: Janine telling Gregory she wants to pursue something with him, and Gregory thinking that, given all the drama, staying friends is the better idea.
Going back to career day, everyone gets the person they ask for — Jacob wants Mr. Johnson, given how many jobs he’s had — but things take a turn when the marketing executive from the Eagles bores the pants off Melissa Schemmenti’s (Lisa Ann Walter) class. And that turn doesn’t just happen because Melissa’s vending-machine-guy boyfriend Gary (Bruno Amato) wants to ask her to marry him.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Abbott Elementary Seasons 1-2.
Our Take: Abbott Elementary is in the phase of its existence where it can confidently go forward with its well-established characters and the chemistry they have with each other, and then shake things up a little bit without alienating fans. That’s what we’re getting with Janine’s fellowship to work for the district.
Brunson and her writers have figured out a way to show Janine exploring her potential while not removing her from Abbott completely; she still works at the school a couple of times per week, and will return when the fellowship is over, but she’s out of the day-to-day. We see during career day that she absolutely misses that, as well as the kids and shooting the bull with Gregory after something strange or interesting happens.
But taking Janine out of the day-to-day to start the season helps reset a few things, namely her friendship with Gregory. Their will-they-won’t-they is the only thing about the third season that we worry about. They danced around things so much in Season 2, with Brunson and company finding so many ways to tantalize the show’s fans with the two of them getting together, only to find some reason to drive them apart, that we’re getting to the point where we need them to decide what to do with the two of them.
Drawn out will-they-won’t-they scenarios tend to overstay their welcomes in an ensemble sitcom like Abbott, because they distract from all the other stories the writers can mine from the rest of the ensemble. While we didn’t completely buy the excuse that Gregory gave when Janine literally told him she wanted to give them a try as a couple, we also want them to go into cruise control as close friends this season, given all of the other story possibilities Brunson and her crew can mine from this now-well-established group. And yes, we do want Janine back in the classroom at some point either during this strike-shortened season or at the beginning of Season 4, but we’re happy to see how this new dynamic works out.
As usual, the show hews closely to its Philly setting, though we wonder if the surprise guest stars the episode had were brought on anticipating an Eagles’ Super Bowl appearance that ended up not happening. It was still a fun set of cameos, and it dovetailed well into Melissa having to deal with the reality of Gary wanting to marry her even though she told him many times that she’s never going that route again.
Sex and Skin: None, as usual.
Parting Shot: The entire school seems to be in Jacob’s classroom as Mr. Johnson wraps up his presentation with his story about escaping the Mafia.
Sleeper Star: We have found that we’re not giving enough love William Stanford Davis as Mr. Johnson, so here’s our long-overdue tribute to a character who gives us consistent and reliable laughs and is being given an increasingly-expansive backstory. He’s like Neil Flynn’s Janitor from Scrubs, except we actually know his last name.
Most Pilot-y Line: While Ava’s inappropriateness with Gregory is a still-funny running gag on the show, and the hidden camera bit gave Brunson and the writers a way to show something that happens while the camera crew was out of the school, it seemed like that would absolutely be a fireable offense in any other scenario except on television.
Our Call: STREAM IT. We give Quinta Brunson a lot of credit for not standing on her laurels for Abbott Elementary‘s third season. Even though she’s shaken things up a little bit, the show still seems to be at the top of its game, and we hope that continues through Season 3.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.