It’s been a heck of a summer break for the faculty of “Abbott Elementary.” Originally slated to return in late 2023, ABC’s sunny, warmhearted sitcom about the hardworking teachers of a struggling Philadelphia public school suffered a months-long pushback due to the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes. In the interim, it raked in another seven Emmy nominations and a well-deserved win for creator/star Quinta Brunson. Now, off the back of its grander heights, the show is finally back for its third season with a two-part premiere that shakes up its dynamics and searches ever more for that sweet spot between heartwarming and hilarious.
When we last left the staff at Abbott, Janine Teagues (Brunson) had just gently shut down her will-they-won’t-they dynamic with fellow teacher Gregory Eddie (Tyler James Williams); as the show had spent the first two seasons showing us, Janine is a tireless servant of her community, so selfless that she hasn’t had the chance to really do Janine. Now, in the two-parter premiere “Career Day,” we see the consequences of that decision, the cold open picking up five months later as Janine makes a career decision that significantly changes her dynamic to the school. (We’re forbidden from revealing here.)
Some of those changes are for the better: it dovetails with the arrival of a trio of wide-eyed new district administrators, led by Josh Segarra’s gentle, patient Manny. (Segarra has been a standout in shows ranging from “Sirens” to “She-Hulk” to “The Other Two,” so it’s a delight to see him here.) Unlike district admins of the past, Manny and crew seem genuinely interested in trying to improve the conditions at Abbott, though I’m sure the season will peel back layers of cynicism or institutional gridlock that stymie even these higher-positioned reps.
But these changes also cause a rift between her and the rest of Abbott’s faculty — particularly Gregory, who may still be feeling some type of way about Janine’s rejection last season. Add to that the bubbling chemistry that seems to be coalescing between Janine and Manny, and “Abbott” may have a new love triangle to wrestle with throughout the season. (We do miss Tariq, though, don’t we folks?)
The kids, however, must come first, and much of the season premiere (though not as much as I’d like) centers around a career day Janine has arranged for the school, giving each teacher a new foil to bounce off — a zoologist who only brought a “fake sloth,” a cosmetologist who offers a defensive Mrs. Howard (Sheryl Lee Ralph) the opportunity for a glow-up. In theory, at least; a few chuckleworthy moments aside, this particular subplot gets derailed by one big-swing cameo from a Philly fave that sucks all the oxygen out of the room.
One of “Abbott”’s struggles is that, for a sitcom, it’s a lot more interested in warming the heart than busting the gut. Granted, the show’s appeal is still in its cast of characters, Brunson and the writers working hard to make them likable and endearing even in their quirks. Chris Perfetti’s Jacob is still the cringe white ally, with his insistence that they have lunch at the new multigrain tofu place (“Who’s ready to get antioxidized?”), Lisa Ann Walter’s Melissa Schemmenti still carries her Philly-sized chip on her shoulder. Even the legendary Sheryl Lee Ralph lets in glimmers of vulnerability amid Mrs. Howard’s regal exterior.
Still, apart from Janelle James’ hilarious Principal Coleman — whose grasps at respectability in the premiere offer an interesting contrast to Janine’s new selfish bent — it’s clear that “Abbott” isn’t in the Tina Fey joke-a-minute business. “Career Day” is light on laughs and heavy on character, concentrating more on warm, fuzzy moments between its characters than on mining them for laughs. (One small exception: Ava calling Gregory “Jeremy Allen Black” after he tries to tempt her to loosen up with a doorway ticket to the gun show.) The premiere has a lot of table-setting to do, with some hopefully funny payoffs as the season progresses. You just won’t get a lot of gut-busting moments in this premiere.
That’s never really felt like the point of “Abbott Elementary,” so it’s hard to ding it for not having the belly-laugh ratio of something like “Girls5eva.” As our very own Christina Escobar wrote about the show in 2022, the show “earns its earnestness” through its sense of authenticity and the close ties it has to its community. That much still shines through, in its admirable cast of character struggling to build a brighter future for its students, one under-charged iPad at a time. Still, one hopes that its third season will avoid the “Ted Lasso” curse and doesn’t lean so hard into its desire to signal its own virtues that it forgets to entertain.
Premieres on ABC on February 7th.