‘Abbott Elementary’ EPs on Season 2 and Quinta Brunson’s ‘Harley Quinn’ Cameo

Feb 22, 2023

Writers and producers Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker share credits on two of the most popular television shows right now — but you might not realize it. The longtime creative partners have been steering the ship that is the Harley Quinn animated series for the past three seasons (now on HBO Max after its initial tenure on DC Universe), but they’ve also been teaming up with creator Quinta Brunson on the smash-hit mockumentary series Abbott Elementary since its premiere on ABC. Although they’ve handed the reins on Harley Quinn over to showrunner and EP Sarah Peters for Season 4 — in part to continue developing a planned Kite Man spinoff in the same universe, currently titled Noonan’s — they pitched in on co-writing the most recent holiday episode, “A Very Problematic Valentine’s Day Special,” which dropped on HBO Max to tide eager fans over in the break between seasons.

These days, Halpern and Schumacker may be busier than they’ve ever been before — but they still found time in their schedules for a sitdown with Collider to chat about both fan-favorite shows. Over the course of the interview, which you can read below, the duo spoke about why they wanted to make a Valentine’s Day special for Harley Quinn, whose storylines came together most easily, and which arcs might carry over into the upcoming Season 4. They also discussed the phenomenon that is Abbott Elementary, when they knew they had a hit on their hands, making the will they, won’t they dynamic between Janine (Brunson) and Gregory (Tyler James Williams) feel natural, whether there’ll be an upcoming episode with the Abbott teachers reacting to the outcome of the Super Bowl, and more.

Collider: Was there always an intention to do a special episode for Harley Quinn in the break between seasons, or was that figured out later on? When did you guys decide, “Let’s give the fans something while they’re waiting for a little more”?

JUSTIN HALPERN: HBO Max saw it was doing very well on their service and wanted something to… It was a huge break between Season 2 and 3.

PATRICK SCHUMACKER: Well, because it literally moved networks.

HALPERN: I think HBO Max, when they basically got the property, it was a little bit of, “What the fuck is this?” Not in a bad way, just sort of, “We don’t know what to do with this.” It’s like somebody handing you something from their house, and you’re like, “What do you want me to do with this?” And then it had a hardcore fan base, and then new people found it, and then they were like, “Oh my gosh, this is really resonating with people, and we don’t want to wait this long between [Seasons] 3 and 4.” So they came to us. We didn’t run Season 4, we hired a writer who was on Season 2 and 3, Sarah Peters, to run it. We actually hadn’t been doing anything on it, and we had been on Abbott, but we love Harley so much, we love the show so much, that when they were like, “Hey, do you want to do a Valentine’s special?” We were like, “A hundred percent.”

SCHUMACKER: It wasn’t us actually asking to do it. We had kind of joked around early on about doing a Hanukkah special, because we felt like there aren’t a lot of those, and that could be fun. Then years later they were like, “Well, Max is asking for something to tide people over between seasons.” It just so happened that the timing of it was somewhere around February. We were like, “Well, if we’re going to do a holiday special in February…”

HALPERN: Let’s do Valentine’s.

SCHUMACKER: That makes sense. Which was exciting for us. They were like, “It’s going to be a double episode, essentially. Then Justin and I got together remotely with Dean Lorey. We were running Abbott with Quinta and Dean was running Big Shot on Disney+, John Stamos’ basketball show. We just sort of shot the shit for a day, then we outlined it remotely, Frankensteined all of that together, and we were shocked when we were like, “This sort of works.” There’s some craziness in it, and we fully embraced the absurdity mixed with the raw emotion of the Harley and Ivy story, which is the show’s sweet spot anyway, and this was those two things mashed together, writ large, and I think that people are really responding to it in a big way.

It was alchemy, just given how we each took an act — it’s a script in six acts — and then just mashed them all together. It was an iterative process, as it always is. We were shocked that the first draft came back and wasn’t entirely incoherent, just because of the nature of the writing process, [and] us not being in the same room with each other. But we’d had three seasons at that point to get the voice of the show in our heads, and so maybe that was part of it as well, that it was a bit second nature.

Image via HBO Max

RELATED: ‘Harley Quinn’ Showrunner Believes Harley and Ivy Are More Interesting When They’re Together

It is a double episode, but it’s very focused in terms of who we spend time with. We’re not getting time with everybody. In terms of the storylines, it’s Harley and Ivy, it’s Clayface, it’s Bane. This trio of stories all come together at the end. Whose storyline came to you guys right away, and who took a little longer in terms of figuring out what the storyline was going to be?

HALPERN: Well, there are sort of two answers to that question. We usually try to start, and we do this with Abbott too — the writers are so sick of us saying this, but we always feel like an episode has to be about something. Even if it’s something small, there has to be an emotional core to the episode. Otherwise, why are we doing the episode? It’s just silly stuff, which is fine, it’s just not the way that [Patrick] and I generally like to tell stories.

With Season 3 [of Harley Quinn], we’d always been talking about what bad habits you bring from a bad relationship into a good one. That big idea was there, but as we kept discussing Season 3, it became more about self-discovery and identity, and it became less attached to any bad habits. That started to feel like something that was maybe not worth a whole season, but it was an idea we really liked. So we thought about that for Harley in terms of what’s on the screen — which is that for her, she never brings any sort of context to anything. She just hears that something’s not the best, and in her previous relationship, everything had to be the best all the time. It felt like something where even if you’re not a crazy psycho killer who was dating a psycho killer, you might have had a similar experience in a relationship with someone like that. That was the big idea that we coalesced around, but the first thing we thought about was Bane being lonely on Valentine’s and accidentally being picked to be a dominatrix because of the way that he’s dressed.

SCHUMACKER: Yeah, I’m pretty sure Dean pitched the Clayface story because he’s just got a really soft spot for Clayface. We also knew, at that point, a little bit of the big picture for Season 4 and this isn’t really spoiling anything, but King Shark plays a pretty significant role, so we were like, “Okay, well, we don’t have to spend much time, even though he’s in this interesting, unique relationship with Tabitha in the show. We’re going to get into that stuff in Season 4.” Clayface, he’s in Season 4, but not as much as in prior seasons, so we definitely wanted to get him in there. And Bane, for us, is just such a joy to write.

Image via HBO

Is there anything that gets set up in this special that could bleed over into Season 4? I personally am very invested in Bane’s potential new romance with the dominatrix.

HALPERN: We definitely wanted this special to exist on its own. That’s not to say, though, that thematically things don’t carry over in Season 4.

SCHUMACKER: Bane’s search for love for sure does.

HALPERN: Yeah, exactly. That is going to be part of it. We can’t have Bane be too happy for too long. Season 4, he is back looking for love. But other than that, no.

SCHUMACKER: We really wanted Sarah Peters to be able to do her season. We didn’t want to saddle her with any specific restraints that might inhibit someone who is really, really talented — which she is — to bring a different voice than he and I would bring to the season. We wanted her to do her version of a season, and so we purposely tried not to meddle or to put our own restraints on what she could do.

HALPERN: But we’re also involved. We were there to respond to everything, and we contributed what we can. But she’s the day-to-day showrunner for Season 4. We have our spinoff, working title Noonan’s, that is very Kite Man and Golden Glider-centric, and the design of Golden Glider in the Valentine’s Day special is her new design that will carry over into the spinoff. So that’s just a little taste of what’s to come in this universe.

Image via HBO

Just to wrap up Harley, but also slowly slide into Abbott, I have to ask about getting Quinta Brunson and Tyler James Williams for those voice cameos. Did you guys call in some favors, or what?

SCHUMACKER: I was on set with Tyler, and I was like, “Hey, you want to be Hawkman?” He was like, “Yeah.”

HALPERN: Also, Quinta does this bit in the writer’s room all the time with us where she’s like, “Everybody has a voice on Harley, but your close partner who you do this other show with, somehow I’m like…” She has a whole bit about it. So finally we were like… Quinta is the best. I mean, she’s just so game for anything, and so we were like, “Do you want to come do this?”

SCHUMACKER: It just felt irresistible. Once we had Tyler, it was like, well, we gotta get Quinta. I know there’s crossover audiences, but this will, for the time being, tie people over who really want Gregory and Janine to get together as soon as possible. Here, it’s a morsel.

HALPERN: I don’t know what the Venn diagram is of people who watch Abbott and people who watch Harley.


HALPERN: I guess Pat’s mom.

And me.

HALPERN: And you. Great. Carly and Pat’s mom.

Image via ABC

Speaking of Abbott, I started hearing about the show getting buzz early on, and then all of a sudden it just ballooned. The success feels like something that was almost a little unforeseen but also completely deserved at the same time. When did you guys have that moment of realization that this was something big?

HALPERN: We’ve made a lot of TV, and a lot of it has not been embraced by audiences. A lot of it’s just been not seen, canceled, whatever.

SCHUMACKER: Even the stuff that has been embraced pales in comparison to the sheer number of people watching Abbott.

HALPERN: We never really know. What I remember, when we were in the writer’s room, when we were breaking the stories, we were like, “Okay, these feel good.” But we’ve felt that before on other things. Certainly, we felt like Quinta was special. We got back the first director’s cuts of the first four episodes, and both he and I thought they were really good, but we didn’t know what audiences are going to think. And then we tested the show.

SCHUMACKER: Well, we had already tested the pilot at this point, as you do, before the pickups happen, and this pilot tested very, very well.

HALPERN: Then we tested Episodes 2, 3, and 4, and it was like nothing we had ever tested.

SCHUMACKER: Tested better than the pilot.

HALPERN: Better than the pilot. The line just went up, and it just stayed there the whole entire time, and he and I were like, “Whoa, what the fuck is happening? This never happens.” It’s funny because it’s Quinta’s first show, and we have a pretty young writing staff, and it’s a lot of their first shows, and so it’s a lot of people not realizing this never fucking happens. This never happens. After that testing, we were like, “I think we got something really special here that people are really responding to.”

Image via ABC

SCHUMACKER: Even the casting process though in the show, which is so much of the show’s success, was, relatively speaking, smooth sailing. Everybody that we brought in who was our number one choice ended up being that character. There was no studio pushback, network pushback. We brought in Janelle [James]. I didn’t know who Janelle was. She had been on staff as a writer on Black Monday and then wrote a character for herself just as a lark. But she walked in and taped, and we were all like, “Who is that? She’s incredible.” We fully expected to get pushback, because she was so relatively unknown. But no, everybody was just like, “She’s it.”

HALPERN: It was kismet, because the two heads of ABC Comedy, Erin Wehrenberg and Wendy Steinhoff, they gave us our first job in 2009, at Warner Brothers. We’ve known them forever. We’ve been friends with them for a really long time, and so we were able to have all these honest conversations with them that you might not be able to have at networks where you don’t know people as well. A lot of times there’s so much fear on the executive side when they’re developing a show. That fear can then sometimes manifest itself over noting or not trusting the talent or the talent not trusting you. What you end up with is, as my friend calls it, feathered fish. It’s not quite a fish, it’s not quite a mammal, it’s this thing that doesn’t really work, but it’s not terrible. Wendy and Erin were like, “We believe in Quinta. We know you guys. We’re going to trust you guys through this process, and we’re going to have conversations about things.” It was a development process that was very unlike what we mostly have had in our careers.

Image via ABC

I have to circle to the Janine and Gregory of it all because that’s a relationship that fans have really glommed onto and moved forward in a big way in the Valentine’s episode. I’ve talked with you guys before about the trajectory of romantic relationships. One thing that is always interesting to me is how shows strike the balance between crafting a friends-to-lovers evolution while not continually contriving reasons to keep them apart. What’s been the important aspect of making that all feel natural?

HALPERN: Quinta is so good at this, because [Patrick] and I and Quinta sit before the seasons, and we talk about what she’s seeing, what we’re thinking, and then we go into the writer’s room, and then we start seasoning. She and he and I sort of have the same philosophy, which is the character has to develop first, and then the relationship, and then you have to see where you’ve developed that character. Is that character in a place where they’re ready to be in this relationship? Sometimes they’re not, and that’s fun, and then you get this relationship that’s not really going to work, and it’s messy. Sometimes we don’t want this relationship to be messy and not work. We want it to ultimately get to a place where it could work. So then we need this character to really mature over the course of their time on screen.

It seems like such a cop-out answer, but we’re never quite sure. Are they going to get together? Are they not going to get together? If they are, when? If they’re not, how do we do that? We’re first saying, what is Gregory’s arc in this show? What is Janine’s arc in the show? They’re two 20-somethings that are finding themselves and not really understanding exactly how they fit in the world. If they figure out how they fit professionally, they don’t really understand how they fit emotionally, which would be more Janine. Gregory thinks he’s more in control of his emotions, but this wasn’t his dream job. How is he adjusting to that? For us, it was, “Let’s figure out these two arcs of these characters first, and then let’s see where that leads us.”

Will there be an episode with the characters reacting to the outcome of the Super Bowl? I feel like Melissa probably lost a lot of money and is not happy about it.

SCHUMACKER: Well, we’re definitely going to talk about that. The Season 2 opener was Mr. Johnson saying, “The Eagles are going all the way.” And I was like, “Oh my God, I want him to be like Nostradamus.” I wanted them to win so badly for many reasons, but also selfish ones because of the show. That would’ve been fun. Either way, we’ve gotten some interest from some athletes, I won’t say who, that want to participate in the show, and that’s always really cool, but it needs to make sense as to why they would cross paths with our teachers.

HALPERN: Quinta took that Super Bowl hard. Because she’s so Philly, and she’s always said from the beginning of the show, “Sports is baked into the DNA of Philadelphia. You cannot do a show about Philadelphia where characters are not talking about sports.” I would obviously want to hear from her first, but I would be shocked if she didn’t also want to talk about that.

Harley Quinn is available to stream on HBO Max. New episodes of Abbott Elementary Season 2 premiere every Wednesday on ABC and are available to stream next day on Hulu.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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