Photo: Gilles Mingasson/Disney
Cue the school bells ringing! Class is back in session! Tonight, Abbott Elementary delivers its third season premiere after receiving even more Emmys since the sitcom last graced our screens. And before we get into the shenanigans of the episode, I’ve got to highlight Quinta Brunson’s historic win as the second Black woman to ever win an Emmy for Best Comedy Actress; the first Black woman to win, Isabel Sanford from The Jeffersons nabbed the trophy in 1981. And it’s not just Quinta moving up the ranks in her career — season three kicks off with a new job for Janine that puts her affable and resourceful energy to good use.
Now that the district has a new superintendent, the next generation of district employees is seeking to make necessary and helpful changes for the public schools in their domain. A trio of these new employees visit Abbott to observe their teacher Development Day before the school year begins. Manny, who is hugely enthusiastic and almost sickeningly sweet, leads the other employees, Emily and Simon, as they pass out new iPads and Smart Boards to all the classrooms and observe the comings and goings of Abbott Elementary. They’re met with smugness from the teachers, who are used to being overworked and underpaid with little assistance from the district. Even Janine proclaims that after a soul-searching summer, she will stop “trying to fight the odds” and “just be a good teacher.” But, during the morning’s orientation, her ingenuity still shines when she suggests implementing a Career Day.
Though Ava and Janine’s coworkers immediately shoot down the idea, the proposal piques Manny’s interest, and he asks to shadow her for the day, where they find out they have a lot in common, as frequent posters in the comment section of Chalkbeat. He even proposes to revisit Janine’s old idea to paint the classroom walls blue. This warms Janine to Manny, cracking her attempts at being a more nonchalant teacher, and eventually, Manny offers her the Robeson Fellowship with the district, where she’ll use her first-hand experience to enhance what the district can do to make schools as efficient as possible. The episode actually starts five months after Janine begins the new job, with Janine showing up for the Career Day she pitched when she first met Manny. Janine bursts into the library in a tailored two-piece skirt suit set with a distinctive middle part in her hair. Remember last season’s premiere when she merely switched her side part and declared herself a new person? Well, this dramatic new look proves she’s truly entered a new chapter in her life. The show then rewinds five months and shows us how she decided to accept the fellowship and step away from her classroom, something she was initially unwilling to do.
One thing that sets Abbott Elementary apart from its mockumentary predecessors is leaning into the documentary aspect, giving the cameras and the unseen people behind them a purpose and a storyline, with the role of the cameras in Abbott Elementary being clear from the pilot episode. We know that an actual documentary is being filmed and that the invisible camera crew isn’t just a storytelling device, allowing the Abbott writers more freedom to explore the mockumentary genre, which lends itself to hilarious and convenient ways to keep the jokes rolling. For instance, to explain the five-month gap between the season two finale and the beginning of this episode, we find out that the crew took a wrong turn one night after filming and had their equipment stolen. Ava succinctly explains how they’ve been away for nearly half a year because “that’s how long it takes for three people with art degrees to save up for new cameras.” As someone with a journalism degree, I can concur.
So, what have the rest of our favorite Philly educators been up to in the months between seasons? Gregory worked with the grounds crew for the Orioles; Melissa and Gary grew even closer, and Ava is flaunting her new Ivy League (adjacent) degree in education and proudly proclaims to be “engaged, alert, and by-the-books.” While studying at Cambridge — as in “physically located within the legal property lines of Harvard” and siphoning the free wifi — Ava obtained her degree from Grand Canyon University and is eager to implement her new skill set. No longer is she taking any opportunity to point out how F-O-I-N-E Greg is, nor is she allowing her employees to reign freely as long as they stay out of her way. Now, Ava is wearing wide-framed glasses to emphasize her professionalism as she buzzes around the school, ensuring all the teachers are optimizing their classrooms and strictly adhering to the curriculum in preparation for the new year. She forces Barbara to move her desks into a communal setting, sets up all-seeing security cameras, bans off-campus lunches, and eliminates free periods.
By the first day of school, Ava’s new demeanor and strict adherence to district mandates threaten to ruin everyone’s year, so they band together to stop this Harvard-bred monster. While they devise a plan to “reset Ava,” Janine works with Manny, Emily, and Simon to improve the changes they made further, including guaranteeing that there are enough chargers for all the iPads. They’re surprisingly receptive and eager for her advice, so Manny makes concessions that would sweeten the fellowship for Janine, like allowing her to teach for two days out of the week and paying her a whole two dollars more. It turns out that Manny is the child of an educator, and as he told Barbara, his dream is to make things easier for students and teachers. Once Janine comes to Barbara for words of wisdom regarding the fellowship, Barbara has begun to trust the new district employees. So much so that she advises Janine to take the job, and we get our first Hallmark-worthy Barbara quote of the season: “Dreamers are the only people who can bring about a different reality.”
Ironically, stopping Ava from being good at her job would also make things easier for everyone at Abbott. Hence, the staff tries everything at their disposal, like trying to trick her into scamming Jacob or giving her Usher tickets. They even bring out the “big guns” by having a short-sleeved Gregory present himself and his bulging arms in the doorway. When none of that works, only Barbara comes up with a fool-proof plan when none of that works. They lock her in the gym, and after telling Jesus to close His ears, Barbara plays the one song she knows will work like the pied piper to bring Ava back to her factory settings. And we’ve all been there before, on those nights out where nothing is going right, but then you hear a faint sound coming from the speakers, the sound of an orchestra chirping out a familiar beat accompanied by snares and hi-hats before Juvenile’s voice blossoms above the sounds, calling to you: “Cash Money Records taking over for the ‘99 and the 2000.” Your body moves without your brain telling it to, and you dance harder than you thought you could. This is the spell that Ava falls under when “Back That Azz Up” blasts over the loudspeaker. She tries to resist at first, but her knees buckle and her shoulders bounce before she goes full out and throws her glasses off her face, yelling, “I’m back, y’all!”
The episode fast-forwards back to Career Day, where Janine oversees the professionals in each classroom. Barbara gets a cosmetologist who gives her a TikTok-approved beat, Gregory gets a botanist, Melissa gets someone who does marketing for the Eagles, and Jacob gets Mr. Johnson … who naturally turned out to be the most interesting of them all as he regaled the class with stories of working with the mob in Siciliy and sneaking his way onto the Senate. But Melissa’s visit is the most surprising as it doubles as a Hail Mary-inspired engagement from Gary, despite her constant reminders that she doesn’t want to get married again. Gary believes her refusal really means creating a miracle situation that would force her to say yes (what a terrible way to propose) and arrange for the Philadelphia royalty Jalen Hurts to livestream during career day to pop the question.
Melissa declines Gary’s proposal, which unfortunately leads to a sad breakup and a conversation about boundaries. However, the students don’t mind because they met Jalen Hurts and two other players (I don’t watch sports, but I know one was Travis Kelce’s brother! I only know Jalen because he’s fine, lol), making it the best Career Day they could’ve imagined. At first, Janine beats herself up because Jalen’s call made such a disturbance, causing all the students to leave their classrooms. But her on-the-spot problem-solving by having Jalen live-streamed throughout the school and not just Melissa’s class impresses Manny and the rest of the district, who proclaim Career Day a success. Like Janine said, she ate that!
• As I reflect on Quinta’s win, I return to the points Jay-Z made at the Grammys; in the eyes of those governing the results of all the major entertainment awards, Black women are rarely the best at anything. These biases are why it’s hard for me to give these awards much weight, but I was beaming when Quinta stood on that stage with her trophy.
• Ava’s CCTV footage revealed that Janine and Gregory did revisit their season finale conversation, with Janine wanting to date, and the outcome broke my heart. Although Gregory claims that he interpreted her response at the museum as a rejection and has since gotten over her, I don’t believe it based on how he looked at her interactions with Manny and how they spoke at the end of the episode. Call me a hopeless romantic, but I’m here for the long game!
Finally, here are some of the best one-liners:
• Barbara: “Ava, I already told you I’m not interested in auditioning for the Golden Bachelorette. Gerald is still very much alive.”
• Jalen, seeing Janine in her suit: “Hey, little girl, look at you all dressed up for Career Day!”
• Jacob pitching himself for the Robeson Fellowship: “And if it’s about diversity, let me tell you that I am queer.”
• Ava, when Jacob tries to seduce her: “Put your arms away, Jeremy Allen Black, this is a school!”
First appeared on www.vulture.com