How Abbott Elementary’s Writers’ Room Handles Ava’s Sexual Harassment Of Gregory [Exclusive]

Quinta Brunson, who created, executive produces, writes, and stars in ABC's hit sitcom "Abbott Elementary," is the show's heart and soul. The legendary Sheryl Lee Ralph, who plays kindergarten teacher Barbara Howard, is the show's MVP. But Janelle James, who plays the snarky, sneaky, and downright hilarious principal Ava Coleman, is undoubtedly its breakout star.

Ever since "Abbott Elementary" premiered in December 2021, it's been a hit among fans and critics alike. Brunson pulled bits of inspiration from other successful series -- the fourth-wall-breaking mockumentary shooting gimmick of "The Office" and the terminally cheerful heroine surrounded by a muck of setbacks and skeptics character setup of "Parks and Recreation" come to mind. But she's fashioned an entirely unique creation that has edged beyond its forerunners and into its own. The show's big heart, low stakes comedy, and commitment to spotlighting the challenges teachers face in performing their vital social roles have minted it as television gold. 

Janelle James' uproarious performance as Principal Ava plays a huge role in the success of "Abbott." Characters like William Stanford Davis' jack-of-all-trades janitor Mr. Johnson and Lisa Ann Walter's tough-talking second grade teacher Melissa Schemmenti have become reliable set-ups for some of the show's best punchlines. But no one cuts through the noise with a joke as effectively as James. The core of what makes the Ava character funny is her deliberate, even proud shirking of her responsibilities at Abbott Elementary. Yet it's that exact character trait that's led the writers of "Abbott" down a questionable path with respect to Ava's relationship with new teacher Gregory Eddie, played by Tyler James Williams.

A Precarious Dynamic

If Brunson, James, and co. cut Principal Ava from the same cloth as Michael Scott, the archetypal bad boss of the small screen, they created an even more likable character by pedaling up her narcissism, which diminishes her tendency toward pettiness. Ava may embezzle money from the school's budget to spend on concert tickets and pull students out of important lessons to film TikToks, but she rarely undermines or sabotages any of her underlings to the degree that you feel bad for them, or cold towards her. That is, except for Gregory.

In the words of Tyler James Williams, Ava is constantly toeing the "line between flirting and harassment" in her relationship with her new hire. Ava makes it clear from the moment she meets Gregory that she finds him attractive, and continues to make provocative asides about him, addressed as much toward him as they are the audience. The way that Gregory almost never responds, the fact that none of the other characters address Ava's comments when they witness them, and Ava's own shamelessness can sometimes create an uncomfortable feeling that is hard to square with the exceedingly harmless nature of most of the comments.

/Film's Ben Pearson recently asked Brunson's co-showrunners, Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker, what they think about this dynamic, and Halpern admitted that, "We talk about it actually a lot in the writers' room." He described Ava as "someone who abuses her power a bit in this relationship, in this dynamic, early on," but characterized her behavior as "a power thing more than it's a sexual thing. We always would say, if Gregory came onto her, she'd be like, 'I'm not interested, get away from me.'" Yet he never does, so we never get to see that side of Ava. But that may soon change.

Character Growth Is Key

Gregory and Ava's dynamic has undergone a considerable though quiet evolution in the second season of "Abbott Elementary." She'll still cheekily let him know where she'll be after school and comment on how his shirts fit him, but the demands of keeping an underfunded school running in an underserved area have made interesting inroads into their once static, sometimes uneasy relationship. 

In the season 2 episode "Sick Day," Janine's (Brunson) sick leave puts such a strain on Abbott that the reluctant, work-dodging Ava is forced to step in and teach her class. Predictably, she runs it straight into chaos, prompting Gregory to step in and help her. As Gregory details all that Janine does to prepare for her classes, Ava makes her characteristically irreverent and dismissive asides, but James underlines the performance with the sense that what Gregory is telling Ava is making a genuine impression on her. It's a powerful scene in terms of Ava's character growth, highlighting just how much it takes teachers to do their jobs successfully -- and how little Ava does in contrast. James conveys humility, defiance, eager understanding, and the pull of old, bad habits, all in just a few facial expressions.

Halpern noted in the interview that the writers "don't want [the Ava] character to cross a line that makes people feel really uncomfortable. But also, we want to grow the character." Though he conceded that "in the third season, I bet we will do very few of them" -- them being the Ava/Gregory flirt/harassment scenes -- it's through good old-fashioned character growth, and not simple scene cutting, that the "Abbott Elementary" crew decided to approach the issue before it got out of hand. True to the subjects of their show, the writers of "Abbott Elementary" never take the low and easy road.

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