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Abbott Elementary Bosses Reveal the Magic Formula Behind TV's Best Show

After Emmy noms and a huge response at San Diego Comic-Con, the pressure is on for Season 2

Lauren Piester

In just one season of 13 episodes, Abbott Elementary managed to do something that has become increasingly rare in today's TV landscape: hit. And not only did it hit, but it hit big, especially for a broadcast network comedy with no huge names attached. It earned seven Emmy nominations alongside cable and streaming phenomena like Barry, Ted Lasso, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, including a lead actress nom and writing nom for star and creator Quinta Brunson. It also leads the nominations at the 2022 TV Critics Association Awards, and landed in the top spot on TV Guide's annual list of the 100 best shows on TV. But perhaps the most tangible, visible indication of Abbott's success was its presence at San Diego Comic-Con, with a line that snaked down the street and around the corner for its extensive activation, which allowed fans to attend Teacher (Dis)Orientation and get their Abbott teacher credentials.

While Brunson was busy being a star at the ESPYs, her fellow showrunners Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker got the opportunity to see the activation (and its line) firsthand, and they told TV Guide that they both cried. 

"It was unbelievable," Halpern said. "I mean, we've been doing this job a long time. We've been through a bunch of this stuff, and you get kind of jaded. And that was, like, genuinely inspiring and amazing. I mean, I could not believe the level of detail and thought that [went into it]. Credit to the ABC and Warner Bros PR team. I've never seen one that good." 

"I don't know how they did it," Schumacker added. "I was so blown away. The level of detail and all the little easter eggs everywhere? I was mind blown." 

Abbott Elementary at San Diego Comic-Con

Abbott Elementary at San Diego Comic-Con

Creative Riff

To enter the activation, fans were ushered in by crossing guards in bright yellow vests. They got the chance to make a GIF of themselves in front of a school bus, and then entered the school for orientation. They were greeted by a large wall featuring TV Guide's digital 100 Best Shows cover, and then got the chance to try their hand at understanding Abbott's complicated (and perhaps dangerous) electrical system. On either side of a short hallway, lockers stood open that featured jokes from the show, a far wall displayed fan art of the Abbott characters. The next room was Principal Ava's office, where you could get your photo taken for your official Abbott teacher badge. 

The next stop was a classroom, in which you could take a quiz to find out which character you were, or scan one of the QR codes on a wall that would allow you to donate to various real-life classroom funds. Then, you headed to the gym, where the Abbott steps team was waiting to perform for you. You then left with a twinkie, a water bottle, a badge, and probably a big smile on your face. 

"It was all just flooring," Schumacker said of seeing how many people were waiting to get in. "We've only done 13 episodes!" 

"It's also not the kind of show that I would have thought would have that kind of response at Comic-Con," added Halpern. And he and Schumacker would know, since they're both also the showrunners of HBO Max's foulmouthed Harley Quinn—the most opposite show you can get to Abbott, in many ways, and a big draw at a place like SDCC. Below, Halpern and Schumacker explain how they go between the two shows, what makes Abbott so magical, and how they're making sure the show doesn't lose that magic in season two and beyond. Oh, and there's some Janine and Greg scoop in there too that you're not going to want to miss! 

How strange is it to be at Comic-Con promoting these two totally opposite shows, and seeing so much love for this optimistic workplace comedy? 
Halpern: Yeah, it's cool. I really love it. One of the things I just love about what Quinta wanted to do with this show is she wanted to make a show that was optimistic but realistic. I think so often you have a show that's optimistic but it's totally gaslighting the world. It's optimistic with no intention of ever giving you any piece of realism. It's afraid to touch subjects that are real. And with Abbott, it's like this thing where it's an optimistic show set in a place that can be really, really dramatic at times. I'm just so proud of what Quinta wanted to do and to be a part of it. It's amazing. 

Do you worry that the huge positive response to the show kind of puts some pressure on next season, especially now that you get to do 22 episodes? 
Schumacker: I don't think we can think about that because we have to do 22 episodes. We got to basically write the first season in a vacuum. So coming back, I think the mantra with all the writers, with the cast, with everybody involved was just like, we're really proud of what we did in the first 13. Let's just keep doing what we're doing, trust that we are the keepers of the show, keepers of this narrative, these characters. We're just going to honor that and just continue to do what we're doing. 

Halpern: And I think that the way Abbott is built, it's built to be a show where you can live with these characters for large amounts of time. You know, you wouldn't want to do 22 episodes of a show that I love like The Boys. You don't want to do 22 episodes of The Boys because you need to go through plot, you need to have these highs and lows. But Abbott is like a show where you're living in it, right? It's almost like you want it to be a roommate. And I think in a really good way, that allows us to just, like, when we're making decisions, say, "Does this feel like an episode of Abbott? Or are we trying to do something that doesn't feel like the show?" 

How much do you have to block out the response, like all the Emmy nominations and the immediate obsession over Greg and Janine, to focus on the show? Will there be a sort of shinier look to Season 2? 
Halpern: I don't think so. I think in a weird way, like when we came into the writers room after the nominations, it was like, "Yay, everybody's happy!" And then we just got to work. I think it was just kind of like, oh, this feels so nice to have your peers say they enjoy what you're doing. 

Schumacker: Honestly, the most palpable change given the Emmy nominations is unfortunately our line producer's problem, because we have our cast doing a lot of press. So it's up to them and our AD to figure out the puzzle of how are we going to get them on the talk show circuit and shoot the show. 

It seemed like they all became stars pretty quickly. They're everywhere! 
Yeah, it was crazy. I've never seen anything like that. Certainly nothing in our career has been like that. It happened so quick. 

What do you think this means for the future of broadcast comedies? There hasn't been one that hooked people so immediately in a while, so what do you think it says about what people want to watch? 
Schumacker: It's a tough question, because we've been so Abbott 24/7, and we're not developing anything new. But I do think it's an exciting opportunity, and if Abbott ends up drawing attention to a more traditional broadcast format…We've heard from friends of ours who have been taking out pitches that everybody's like, "We want the next Abbott." It does seem like there's an appetite for it within all of the networks. 

Halpern: I hope the thing that it does is allow pitches to be bought and shows to be bought that don't necessarily have to be really high concept. You just really believe in the voice behind it. Like I remember that when ABC decided to pick Abbott up, it was kind of late. We weren't like the first show picked up by ABC, and I remember talking to an executive who we were friends with, this woman named Wendy Steinhoff. She was really fighting for the show to get picked up, and she said, "If we don't make the Quinta Brunson show, someone else is going to make the Quinta Brunson show and it's going to be a hit." I remember thinking that's such a good way to put it. You believe in this person. You believe in Quinta, you believe in her talent, in her ability to connect with audiences. There have been shows about teachers before. There's been mockumentaries before, but it's like, this person is special. That's who I want to believe in, and that's why this works. 

Schumacker: Her mother was an educator in the Philadelphia public school system for over 40 years, so you know, she has kind of seen it up close and personal for a long time. 

Abbott Elementary

Abbott Elementary

Pamela Littky/ABC

I was going to ask if you had identified the magic of the show that will help you keep it going with all this love behind it, especially since there's already so much pressure on sophomore seasons of shows.  
Halpern: I was talking to Quinta about this. You ever watch the show Chef's Table? They did an episode on Nancy Silverton, who does [the restaurant] Mozza. She has a quote in the show where she says, "I don't focus on trying to make food nobody's ever seen before. I want to make all the food you love better than everyone else." And I was talking to Quinta about that, and she's like, "That's what I want to do. That's me. I want to make the food you've had, and I want to make it better than anyone else makes it." And that's what we try to focus on at Abbott. Like, a lot of times in writers rooms, we're doing an episode, and it feels familiar, like it feels like I've seen this before. So we take it back. We take it apart. "All right, let's look at it again. How do we look at this in a way that it's elevating what we've normally seen? 

How are you feeling about having set up Janine and Greg as a will they/won't they? People are already rooting for them so hard, but how long can you keep it going? How much pressure are you feeling about your Jim and Pam?  
Schumacker: You know, I think traditionally shows that have ended their will they/won't they, or made it "they will," early on have suffered from that decision. I don't want to put a number on it, like a number of episodes or even seasons, but I do think when the time is right, we're hoping for something major to happen that everyone will be happy about. But we're not going to see that in episode 13 of Season 2. 

Halpern: We're going to earn whatever ends up happening. 

What is it actually like for you to jump between Harley Quinn and Abbott Elementary? 
Halpern: Pat literally jumps between them. He is literally jumping in between productions. 

Schumacker: I am a broken person. 

Halpern: In terms of the writing, I think we like a lot of different kinds of shows. There's certainly a part of us that really likes this dialed up genre stuff, and a part of us that really loves a good network sitcom. 

Schumacker: It's the benefit of having a partner and having that sort of Venn diagram not completely overlap to be a perfect circle. 

It also sounds like a great way to both get out some of your rage and also have some hope. It kind of sounds like you're actually very balanced people.  
Halpern: No, I think you're actually hitting on something. Harley is definitely a part of us as writers. That's a part of our voice as writers, that show, and then another part is Abbott. And I think if we were only on one and didn't get to do the other, it would leave us feeling a little weird. And I remember parts of writing Harley before we started Abbott where it was like, gosh, I'm starting to feel a little gross inside, a little dark. And then getting into Abbott was like, ah, yeah. Genuinely, I felt my emotions and my mental state be a little more unburdened. 

I would imagine if you ever got into territory on Abbott where you're like, this is gross, you know not to do that. 
Halpern: I mean, that's the thing. Quinta had a rule from the start where she was like, "I never want to make a very special episode." People don't live their lives like that. That's not this show. And we were like, good. We also don't want to make that. She was adamant about that. It was not in her vision for the show. 

Schumacker: Yeah, she has this delicacy that she treats these subjects with, right. Like you don't want to be heavy handed about this stuff. 

I've been horrified by her tweets about people asking her to do an episode about a school shooting. Why would anyone want that? 
Halpern: Why would you want that from Abbott when you tune in to feel good? 

So to confirm, there will never be a school shooting episode? 
Halpern: There will never be a school shooting episode of Abbott Elementary

Abbott Elementary is now available to stream on Hulu.