Justin Tan is an absolute sadist who will not rest until we’re writhing on the floor. How else to explain the script he wrote for “Valentine’s Day,” the February 8 episode of Abbott Elementary? With merciless precision, he pushes Janine (Quinta Brunson) and Gregory (Tyler James Williams) this close to the romantic breakthrough the show has teased for over a year, then yanks them apart at the last possible second. Anyone watching could be forgiven for groaning in pain.
But it’s a delicious pain. Will-they-won’t-they stories are a TV staple because they mix the tension of conflict with the promise of joy. The frustration of almost-kisses and not-quite confessions is enjoyable if there’s a chance the characters will eventually realize what we realize — namely, that they’re meant for each other. A happy ending isn’t guaranteed, of course, but as long as the story keeps moving toward some kind of resolution, even if it’s just a little bit at a time, we can relish being strung along. And the moves in “Valentine’s Day” are especially deft.
First, the episode keeps using Jacob (Chris Perfetti) as a go-between. After deducing that Gregory likes Janine in the episode “The Fundraiser,” he makes the honest mistake of telling Janine all about it. This highlights that Jacob is a good and caring friend, but it also gives Janine information that Gregory doesn’t have. That allows for crucial advancements in the plot.
To wit: Janine’s realization that Gregory likes her gets her talking about him in the break room, where her co-workers acknowledge how obvious it is that she also likes him. And now that everyone has talked about it, their attraction is “real.” It’s no longer a matter of awkward pauses and loaded glances. It’s a fact. This opens the door for all sorts of fun storylines.
It’s also important that for the time being, Gregory is still outside the circle. He’s now the only major character who doesn’t know what everybody else knows. It’s one thing for Janine and Gregory to both have a secret they’re keeping from themselves, but it’s quite another for Janine to have a secret she’s keeping from Gregory. From a narrative perspective, it’s much more volatile for her to have this trump card that she could play at any second. It’s what the edges of seats are made for, waiting for her to finally come clean.
Then there’s the matter of Maurice (Vince Staples) and Amber (Naté Jones), Janine and Gregory’s current flings. In a “Gift of the Magi” twist, the episode ends with Gregory giving Amber a jigsaw puzzle, which Janine loves, and Maurice giving Janine a handbag, which Amber loves. This not only reminds us that Janine and Greogry understand each other, but also suggests that Maurice and Amber would make a great couple, too. This could be a preview of the endgame: If Gregory and Janine get together while Amber and Maurice do the same, then everybody can be happy without hurting anyone else.
That would be a perfect Abbott Elementary ending. As the rest of this episode proves, the show tilts toward romance without suffering. When he’s not running interference for Janine, for instance, Jacob gets a surprise Valentine’s Day visit from his boyfriend Zach (Larry Owens). In the final scene, Gary (Bruno Amato), the vending machine guy, finally tells Melissa (Lisa Ann Walter) he loves her. These moments are all very sweet, and they enhance the wonderful torture of waiting for Gregory and Janine to experience the love the show seems to be promising them. If they could just kiss already, then they could start being happy and the rest of us could breathe a sigh of relief.
Abbott Elementary airs Wednesdays at 9:00 PM ET on ABC. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Mark Blankenship is Primetimer's Reviews Editor. Tweet him at @IAmBlankenship.
TOPICS: Abbott Elementary, ABC, Bruno Amato, Chris Perfetti, Justin Tan, Larry Owens, Lisa Ann Walter, Naté Jones, Quinta Brunson, Tyler James Williams, Vince Staples