Justin Halpern And Patrick Schumacker On Abbott Elementary And Harley Quinn’s Valentine’s Special [Exclusive Interview]

I’m guessing you’ve probably had a lot of conversations with Quinta and the writers about the, “will they, won’t they” idea, and trying to perfect exactly how to walk that line when it comes to the storytelling. What are those conversations like in the room? How do you guys approach that dynamic?

Halpern: Our philosophy is, we work from character arcs first. So, before we figure out how they’re going to interact with each other, we try to plot out the arc of the character itself. “Where’s Janine this season? Where do we want to take Janine by the end of the season?” And then, once we figure that out, we go, “Okay, well then, would Janine be in a place where she would be ready for a relationship, or not ready for relationship, or how would she react if somebody said this to her?” We’re doing the same thing with Gregory and all the characters. We’re saying, “Okay, what’s Gregory’s arc over this season?” I know they’re fictional characters, but we try to allow them to be human beings that are on their own path. Then as writers, we can say, “Okay, are these paths now here [lifts hand] or are they here [lifts hand to different height]? Because if they’re here, great, we can play into that. If they’re here, then maybe they’re ready. Or maybe they never get here.”

So when Quinta says, “I don’t know when they’re going to get together or if they’re going to get together,” she’s being honest. She really thinks about it with us and the writing staff. We all sit down and talk about — those are probably our biggest, meatiest conversations where people really get fired up and start arguing for one way or the other in terms of the character. We never talk about it as, “When should they get together?” We only talk about it as, “Where’s this character? Would that character be ready? Would I buy that?” Because I think our nightmare is, you’re sitting at home, and you see something happen on our show and you go, “Well, that wasn’t earned. They would never have done that.”

That’s like we’re betraying the trust of the audience. A good TV show is like somebody else is driving the car and you can just sit and relax. You know there’s good hands on the wheel. And then, as soon as you feel that first bump or they swerve, then you’re like, “F***, do I have to pay attention? Do I trust this person who’s driving the car?” So we never want that to happen. We want you to just sit back and relax and enjoy the ride. So that’s why we talk so much about whether or not we’ve earned whatever we’re doing.

Schumacker: Yeah. I think that’s the most important thing. And also realizing that Goldilocks storyline: You’re never going to quite satisfy everybody. Audiences are going to be — if they get together, maybe it’s too soon. Maybe it’s too late. If they don’t get together … you’re never going to please everybody else. So I think we’ve done enough television where we’re content knowing that we’re not going to be able to please a hundred percent of the audience. But whatever feels like the most truthful for us is good enough.

I’ll use this as a bridge into “Harley Quinn” territory, but one of the things you guys have said about that show is that Harley and Ivy will never break up. And I’m curious, A, what prompted you to draw that line in the sand? Because you didn’t have to say that. And then, B, does your position about Harley and Ivy’s staying power also extend to Janine and Gregory, assuming that they might actually get together one day?

Halpern: I think for us, for “Harley,” it was like, these two characters have been through a lot, and they’ve never really gotten a chance to be in a relationship with someone who loved them unconditionally. So we just felt like, so much of Harley’s history has been this contentious relationship with the Joker. It’s toxic. It’s abusive. And a lot of the drama was in how he treated her and how she existed within the context of that relationship. So we just decided it’s more interesting to us to see a relationship that is healthy, but goes through the same struggles that everybody else goes through.

That feels like more fertile ground that hasn’t been tapped into with Harley than the, “will they, won’t they, they break up, they come back together.” We’ve seen that s***. We’ve seen it with Harley. Obviously, it’d be different because it’d be Ivy, but now let’s see these two people who are genuinely committed to making it work at all of the struggles that come. It’s hard to make any relationship work, but these are two super villains, so there’s plenty of stuff to play with. That’s kind of how I feel.

Schumacker: I echo everything that Justin said. Then, on top of that, I think for me, I just find them more interesting together. I want them to be happy. And also, it’s really important to everyone who works on the show to portray a queer relationship as a happy one. That’s so important for us.

Halpern: Yes.

Schumacker: Maybe more than anything. Yeah. So, that’s why I can honestly say that, as long as we are in charge of the show, which, knock on wood, will be for the duration of the show, that we will have the final say with this sort of thing. They will never break up.

Halpern: We didn’t try to do this, but I feel like now, at this point, we put it in a poison pill that, even if we were removed from the show, we’ve made this promise to the audience, so they probably have to keep doing it anyway. [laughs]

In regards to the Janine and Gregory aspect of that, it sounds like what you guys are saying is this is your approach for Harley and Ivy specifically. But also, I’ve heard little comments throughout this conversation of you not necessarily wanting to repeat the same things that audiences fully expect — those tropes and histories that have been established for so many years, you don’t necessarily want to just do your version of that. I apologize for speaking in terms of things that may or may not happen, or haven’t happened yet, but the idea of those two characters getting together, does that have a similar draw for you guys? That idea of, “Okay, they’re together. Let’s see what fertile story ground results from them staying together for a long time, rather than that same splitting and coming back together that we’ve seen a bunch of times in other sitcoms”?

Halpern: A lot of what happens in writers’ rooms on TV shows is, what is getting the writers excited? Because as you start making several episodes of a show, and you start to get in the second, and the third, and the fourth season, in order to make those seasons, the writers have to get excited about something. So I think at “Abbott,” we’re really excited about what we’re writing right now. There’s no shortage of stories being pitched. And I think Quinta is masterful at understanding audiences, and the push and pull of audiences. So I always end in this place of, I trust her. That if she feels like now is the time, then we’ll build to it and that will be the right time. And if she’s like, “No, it’s not the right time,” or, “it shouldn’t happen for this reason, or it should happen this way.” Then, I believe it to be so.

We always said from day one when we were working with her and breaking the pilot and doing all this stuff with her, I said, “Pat and I are always going to give you our opinion, and we may argue our opinion very passionately. But, at the end of the day, we’re trying to give you the best info that you can have to make a decision, because we trust you, and we want you to have this show to be your voice.” And that’s worked really well for us. A good thing about her is, she will hear it out. And if she hears an idea that’s better than her idea, she’ll go with that idea. She doesn’t care. It’s best idea wins. There’s no, “It’s got to be mine.”

So that’s how we’ve always operated, and that’s how we operate with Janine and Gregory’s stuff. We’re constantly checking in with her. We’re talking to her about it. She’s talking to us. If she has an idea, she’ll fire it off, sometimes in the middle of the night, and send it to one of us. For those two characters, I feel like if they get together, it’ll be at the right time. If they don’t get together, it’ll be for a reason that I think the audience will find really satisfying. That’s what we put our trust in.

Leave a Comment