Advertisement

For ‘Abbott Elementary’s’ will-they-or-won’t-they couple, the fun is in the messiness

Quinta Brunson and Tyler James Williams stars of "Abbott Elementary" .
Quinta Brunson and Tyler James Williams stars of “Abbott Elementary” .
(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)
Share
1

Quinta Brunson has guided the Emmy-laden mockumentary “Abbott Elementary” with a sure hand, even through the strike-affected waters of Season 3. A connoisseur of fine sitcoms, the show’s creator and star knows how to play with the genre’s tropes to create something fresh. Nowhere is that more evident than in her character Janine’s will-they-won’t-they relationship with fellow teacher Gregory, played by Tyler James Williams.

The two speak on a Zoom from their respective homes soon after completing Season 3, he in New York, she in Los Angeles. Her shredded voice underscores all the work she’s been doing writing, starring, editing and juggling all the other elements that go into the hit ABC series, which has been renewed for a fourth season. “What I’m doing is insane, and people shouldn’t do it,” she says. But she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Abbott Elementary” centers on an underfunded public school in Philadelphia and the staff that makes it run. Gregory, who started as a reluctant substitute teacher back in Season 1, soon found himself drawn in by Janine’s presence. The feeling was mutual, as the faux film crew caught their glances and smiles; everyone around them saw what was happening sooner than they did.

Advertisement

While the stars of ‘Abbott Elementary’ pretend to teach onscreen, these real-life educators instruct the show’s child actors behind the scenes.

Feb. 6, 2024

Season 2 led Gregory and Janine to an impulsive kiss, and then a decided step back as the characters considered what they were doing. Rather than dissipating the romantic tension, that check only served to heighten it. “I believe firmly that people can come back to each other,” Brunson says. “I think the 20s are a messy time. I myself dated someone at 21 and then again at 23. You just wind up doing that kind of thing, and that was what could be fresh for us on the will-they-won’t-they front.”

“You have to leave room for their spontaneity to complicate their lives,” adds Williams. “I think that’s what our show does particularly well; we allow the characters to be spontaneous in the midst of the bigger plan, and that’s what makes it messy, and that’s what real life is.”

In fact, messiness upended Brunson’s plans for Season 3. The episodes are meant to follow the school calendar, but after the writers’ and actors’ strikes in 2023 halted production, she and the writers’ room faced a truncated season and had to come up with a way to explain the show’s start in February instead of September. “To be honest, Season 3 was the first real curveball I’ve experienced as a creator and showrunner and writer,” Brunson says. They came up with a realistic solution: The documentary crew had their equipment stolen and needed several months to find the funding for new cameras and return to the school. Brief flashbacks caught everyone up on the action.

A man and woman sit together on a school bus looking at each other in a scene from "Abbott Elementary."
The true feelings of Janine (Quinta Brunson) and Gregory (Tyler James Williams) are often caught by the mockumentary cameras in “Abbott Elementary.”
(Gilles Mingasson / Disney)

This season, Janine has accepted a fellowship from the district, taking her away from daily life at Abbott. She’s killing it in her new position, and it shows in everything from her posture to her wardrobe. Well, the wardrobe affected the posture. “She’s wearing heels this year,” Brunson points out. “Even that makes you stand differently, and all of that is a character shift for Janine, who previously was a sloucher. How does she carry herself around her new co-workers?” In one episode, Janine manages to stand up to her mentor, Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph). “Literally, I was contracting my chest, because that’s the struggle for her. ‘How am I going to talk to this woman?’ I have to figure out how to hold myself high.”

Advertisement

Brunson’s approach to her own character changed as well. “This time I had to show up to work and be like, ‘Wait, Janine would say this differently now, so I really need to focus on how Janine is going to be carrying herself in this moment. This is very new for Janine to let go of control; what does that look like for her?’ And I love that; that makes me feel like my brain is being turned on.”

Tyler James Williams poses for the camera.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Williams found his character’s growth just as invigorating. “What’s been nice for Season 3 is Gregory having to grapple with the idea of being at Abbott without Janine, and her being so much of the motivation that got him there,” he says. “‘Do you truly love this? How do you approach your teaching technique without having somebody to knock on the door and talk about things with?’ It’s a lot more development than I think many people would have expected for this character who, in the sitcom, functions as the straight man. I’m grateful for this opportunity to be able to show that much complexity.”

The rest of the ensemble is evolving as well. Melissa and Jacob (Lisa Ann Walter and Chris Perfetti) have become roommates and friends. Nobody’s more surprised than they are about this development. Ava (Janelle James) becomes a responsible principal, relatively speaking. Barbara reveals her vulnerability when her church group doesn’t appreciate her.

For creator-star Quinta Brunson, Janelle James, Sheryl Lee Ralph and Lisa Ann Walter, the series lets teachers be human. And as a result, “teachers are feeling seen, which is one of the best things about the show.”

May 31, 2022

Brunson notes that this has been “our most polarizing season,” because everyone watching, and posting, has opinions about everything from Janine taking the district gig to her relationship with Gregory. “At first it was a little bit scary to see, but then I’m like, ‘Oh wait, people are engaging, people are thinking, and I really do want that.’”

A close up of Quinta Brunson looking into the camera, head rested on her hand.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

While the will-or-won’t of it all isn’t resolving any time soon, the relationship between Gregory and Janine has only deepened this season. In the episode “Alex,” where the two visit a truant student at home, “I see us making these conscious choices to take their relationship from hemming and hawing and not knowing where they are to almost mom-and-dad-like,” Williams says. “They have to communicate with each other in a way that isn’t walking on eggshells but is really grounded in a way that a real relationship is, even though it may not be particularly romantic at this point. It’s been really fun to watch that happen before it necessarily connects to the emotional.”

Although the emotions of it all are certainly there — as when Janine turns to Gregory for help with Barbara. “This is what their relationship is, which to me is so valuable and beautiful to have someone that you can be very truthful with, honest with, more than a friend, but a really deep part of who you trust with your conscience,” Brunson says. “I think it’s a fascinating relationship for them, so I really value that scene a lot because it shows where they are.”

Advertisement