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Let Janine Have This

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Janine, don’t leave that text on read.
Photo: Gilles Mingasson/Disney

Spoilers ahead for the penultimate episode of Abbot Elementary’s third season.

Janine Teagues’s next boyfriend should be tall, able to rock a gold chain, and possess a smile so giddy at seeing her — so infectious — that there’s no question of his adoration. He should also be corny enough to get away with calling her presence “a present,” if he wanted to, honest enough about his feelings for her that he could share them without hesitation, and confident enough that those feelings exude some tangible amount of sensuality and desire. Janine deserves that emotional and physical overload, and we deserve to watch it! I am, of course, talking about Manny Castillo.

Gregory Eddie is clearly Janine’s one true pairing; there is no version of Abbott Elementary in which these two pleasantly awkward nerds don’t end up together. As much as the series has been intentional in using Principal Ava Coleman to interrupt the pair’s more charged moments, whether at the bottom of a giant slide in this season’s penultimate episode or at the hookah bar in season two, Abbott has also devoted nearly three whole seasons to Janine and Gregory making eyes at each other and tripping over their declarations of emotion. They’re not not going to find their way into each other’s arms, even with the very real challenges of workplace appropriateness now in front of them thanks to Ava’s warnings and Mr. Morton’s recounting of his own failed marriage to a fellow teacher. As my colleague Jen Chaney wrote last year, “Abbott Elementary is not a show that would deprive its audience of that kind of payoff. It’s just withholding it for now because that makes the most sense.”

I don’t disagree! Pairing off Janine and Gregory too early leaves a lot of story on the table, and this third season was already truncated because of last year’s strikes. So, with the fourth season of Abbott already ordered, I have a request: Before Janine and Gregory give in to their long-running attraction and potentially run afoul of the school system’s HR department, can Abbott Elementary give us the kind of anguished, yearning love triangle that is so integral to the sitcom experience?

I don’t mean one of those love triangles that’s set up to fail, where you know the third wheel isn’t going to matter long term. Abbott already gave us that with Vince Staples’s Maurice and Naté Jones’s Amber, two fun characters whose very different personalities from Janine’s and Gregory’s meant they clearly weren’t going to stick around for long. I don’t want Pam-Roy-Jim or Rachel-Paolo-Ross or even Lucille 1-Buster-Lucille 2. I mean a love triangle in which you could make a case for the seeming third wheel being the actually correct romantic pairing: Monica, Chandler, and Richard; Ross, Rachel, and Julie; Joey, Dawson, and Pacey; Carrie, Big, and Aidan. Complicating audience assumptions about what our favorite characters want can be dramatic and engaging, and a reminder that a series doesn’t run on plot alone; where a story ends up is important, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Performance and pacing are integral, too. And in that spirit: Janine should say “yes” to Manny’s dinner invitation.

Abbott has made good use out of series newcomer Josh Segarra, whose Manny zeroes in on Janine’s professional strengths, offers her a fellowship, and then keeps things collegial during their work together in the Philadelphia school district. When Janine decides to go back to Abbott, he’s disappointed but respects her decision — and only after they’re no longer co-workers does he ask her out, because he knows Janine wouldn’t want to break the rules and he wouldn’t want to put her in a position where she’d be tempted to. This isn’t shade against Gregory, who backs away from asking out Janine in “Smith Playground” because he realizes he’s “made the mistake of not considering it going wrong.” That’s a careful choice from a careful person, and it’s in line with Gregory caring about Janine and not wanting to do anything that would endanger her time at Abbott now that she’s back.

But let Janine live a little! Give her an actually good boyfriend after Tariq, the chaos agent to whom she devoted too many years of her life, and Maurice, who was charming but clearly not right for her. Let’s see how she flourishes when paired off with someone who values her and is able to value her because their personal lives are no longer tangled professionally. I’m not declaring that Janine and Gregory shouldn’t make it official down the line, but a little competition isn’t a bad thing — especially when Segarra has done such a good job easing into this ensemble and making Manny the kind of character you look for in scenes, to see what expressions he’s sneaking into the background and how he reacts to Abbott high jinks.

Manny Castillo, whose smile lines are like a beautiful spiderweb stretched over his whole face, is like the most wholesome Joker you’ve ever seen. That perfectly manicured jawline and his hand rubbing the beard along it! That husky voice saying “Big Teagues!” Manny approaches life with the even keel of someone who cares a lot about his job, co-workers, and friends, and is certain he’s doing everything he can for them — researching every opportunity, answering every question, laughing at every joke (unless the joke is bad, and then he’ll let you know). There’s no artifice here, no doubt. Manny’s a grown-up with a buoyant golden retriever personality, pride in where he’s come from and where he’s going, and an arboreal body made for wearing ironically cool grandpa clothes and casually leaning on doorframes. Why not date this guy? Janine, don’t leave that text on read.

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