Spoilers for the season 2 finale of *__Abbott Elementary __*ahead.
Nearly all of the action in Abbott Elementary’s season 2 finale, “Franklin Institute,” takes place beyond the familiar hallways of Abbott Elementary. In fact, much of the Emmy-winning comedy’s 22-episode second season has been an excursion, offering viewers their first glance at their beloved teachers’ extracurricular activities.
“We definitely had an agenda in the first season—this is just going to be a workplace thing, about what’s said within the walls of Abbott,” co-showrunner and executive producer Patrick Schumacker tells Vanity Fair over Zoom. “Season two we wanted to start to get to know a bit about their personal lives. We’re going to meet siblings, we’re going to meet romantic partners.” Enter characters like Janine’s (Quinta Brunson) responsibility-averse sister (The Bear’s Ayo Edebiri); their emotionally coaxing, Versace-clad mother (Taraji P. Henson); and Jacob’s (Chris Perfetti) sneakerhead boyfriend Zach (Larry Owens).
But would the crew that’s ostensibly filming Abbott’s students and staff for a documentary about public school funding actually follow their subjects to, say, a hookah lounge, as they did in the show’s holiday episode? “It brings up one of my favorite Onion headlines of all time, which is, ‘The Office documentary crew feels like they have enough footage,’” jokes co-showrunner and EP Justin Halpern.
While expanding Abbott’s orbit presented logistical challenges—how to shoot a confrontation between Janine and her sister that she wants to shield from cameras, for instance—it also allows for tonal harmony. That aforementioned “Holiday Hookah” episode, where will they/won’t they co-workers Janine and Gregory (Tyler James Williams) edge ever closer to their eventual first kiss, has the characters seeing each other in a fresh, after-hours light just as the audience does.
Below, the showrunning duo talks about the closure Janine and Gregory find in the season 2 finale and the “tension” that awaits them in season 3, as well as the role awards season played in making everyone involved not want to “fuck this up.”
Vanity Fair: The 22-episode network season is a bit of a lost art. Walk me through how you went about tackling it.
Justin Halpern: The fun thing about 22 is that you have some episodes where you can drill down on one part of a character. You can take some swings you wouldn’t normally, like the episode where Barbara [Sheryl Lee Ralph] starts a fire. That episode is solely about how Barbara deals with mental health and stress, things that affect her at work that she wishes wouldn’t. If you’re doing 13, you probably can’t do that episode because you’ve got to keep things moving.
Was there a period in the season that you felt the stretch and challenge of 22 the most?
Patrick Schumacker: I believe we did seven episodes straight. Episode five happened to coincide with the Emmys. There was pressure for people to make all of these commitments to promote the show and get the word out during award season. And you could just tell that everybody was exhausted. We’re like, “We can’t do more than five moving forward, ideally four.” That was the pressure of award season, but then also of knowing that after episode five, we still had 17 more to do. So yeah, man, that was where it really, really hit us.
The “Educator of the Year” episode felt like acknowledgement of the incredible awards success *__Abbott __*achieved in its first season. How did that attention impact the second season?
Halpern: I don’t think we ever felt the pressure of, “Oh, man, everybody loves it. How are we going to fuck this up?” We felt like, “Hey, let’s just keep making the same show we made in the first season because that’s the show that we all love.” You can get caught up in a lot of shit in this business. For Quinta, and for us it was like, “Are we making episodes that we would want to watch? All right, let’s keep doing that.” So, we try to keep the noise out of it.