Streaming may have partly usurped the splashy Emmy-nominated dramas that once populated broadcast television, but one arena the new entertainment medium still has trouble competing with (“Hacks” aside) in is sitcoms. The Big Four networks still produce the bulk of the most successful half-hour comedies in the business and arguably the brightest new addition to the sitcom realm last TV season was ABC’s “Abbott Elementary.” Ahead of the Season 2 premiere September 21, and as part of TheWrap’s Fall TV Preview, writers and executive producers Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker spoke us about what has and hasn’t changed as the show prepares its return, and how real life bleeds into the characters.
TheWrap: ‘Abbott Elementary’ follows distinct but grounded characters and this very organic sense of humor. Did you need to tweak that recipe when approaching Season 2?
Justin Halpern: It’s me, Pat and [creator/star] Quinta [Brunson], and we just sit and talked to Quinta about what her vision is for the next season and what she wants to do. We all came to the understanding very quickly that we wanted to double down on the grounded nature of the characters. A lot of times in [a] show, as you build towards more seasons, things can get wacky. You go to bigger places to get the same laughs. We all felt what works so well about the show is that it’s based in some kind of reality and we’d be doing a disservice to let it become a little broader than it needs to be.
Schumacker: That philosophy extends to every facet of the show. The show has garnered a lot of attention and celebrities are interested in cameoing in the show. We’re trying to maintain that purity of Season 1 and maintain that documentary feel and treating it as real as possible. It’s tempting to succumb to that sort of interest and we have a cameo in the first episode of Season 2 that’s a big, big surprise. But, for the most part, we’re keeping it like Season 1 as much as possible.
Season 1 was 13 episodes and Season 2 has increased to 22. Is there anything that needs to change in terms of your mental math to produce more while keeping quality high or is it just a focus on what you already do well?
Schumacker: It’s a little bit of both. We started the writers room really early this year in April to serve two purposes. The primary function of that was to have Quinta in the writers room as much as possible. We started filming toward the end of July so we were able to have a few more months with Quinta in the room full time and that was important to maintain that voice. Then the gift of the network telling us pretty early on that we’re getting a back nine. Then we have the clarity and foresight so I don’t think the 22 episode order meant that we had to slow play anything. It allows us to break the season into distinct arcs.
A lot of sitcoms pull real life elements from the creators and cast into the characters. I’m curious if there are any real life elements that have been translated into the show.
Halpern: Well, there’s one really good story that happened when we were shooting the pilot. We realized that Shirley Lee Ralph had Orlando Jones and Orlando Bloom mixed up in her head. She was talking about how proud she was of all that Orlando Bloom had accomplished as a Black actor, so we realized she thought Orlando Bloom was Black and that Darren Starr was also Black, neither of whom are Black. And so we wrote that into her character Barbara for the second season. There’s a cold open where we deal with Barbara being confused as to who is a Black celebrity and who is a white celebrity.
Schumacker: [Producer/writer] Brian Rubenstein’s life we’ve included in the show too.
Halpern: Oh, yeah. One of the writers hates food, basically, and that became Gregory. We had taken it straight from Brian’s life and we put it into the character Gregory and when we turned in the outline to the studio, all the writers are on the call of the outline with the network. Everyone at the studio was like, ‘God, this makes this guy so unlikable. If he doesn’t like food, how is he going to be the romantic lead? Who would ever like this person?’ And we’re all looking at Brian.
Schumacker: It’s on speakerphone and he’s just sinking in his chair.
It’s like Robin Williams’ speech in ‘Good Will Hunting’ about true love being about the weird idiosyncrasies we find in each other.
Halpern: That’s such an interesting thing and you’re 100% right. That’s who we feel about it and we had always talked about how we didn’t want Gregory to just be Jim from ‘The Office.’ We want Gregory to be this low-key weirdo who you get to like the more you get to know him. He does have all these weird idiosyncrasies. He’s not like your classic leading man. And guess what, Janine is f—ing weird too!
You both have previously spoken about doing more bottle episodes in Season 2. Can you offer any sort of sneak peek into what we can expect?
Halpern: I think our show is uniquely built to make bottle episodes. Similarly, when you’re doing a mockumentary at a workplace, same as ‘The Office,’ you can call a lot of those bottle episodes. But I think the thing that we always try to play with when we do a bottle episode is figuring out what is the thing that’s going to stick with the audience? Last year, the work family episode where they’re learning about each other, we were like, ‘All right, this is going to be a bottle episode, but let’s alert the audience and everyone else to the fact that Janine has never been with another man ever in her life.’ How [will that] send everyone spinning out because it’s so rare and insane?
I think in this season, when we do those episodes, you’re going to start to learn more things about the characters that you didn’t know before and hopefully it’s very satisfying, interesting and funny.
Schumacker: We open Season 2 in an unexpected place and an episode that shows a part of teaching that hasn’t been explored yet. Without going into details, it’s like what happens when the teachers are preparing for the year to start. But that’s something that we were really interested in because I think it was illuminating [for] a lot of people, myself included.
“Abbot Elementary” Season 2 premieres at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Sept. 21