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February 11, 2019

Getting Schooled

AJ Michalka goes back to school in her new series.

Tom Knapp
  • ABC
  • ABC
  • ABC
  • ABC
  • ABC

The future of Lainey Lewis and Barry Goldberg will, for the foreseeable future, remain a mystery.

The fan-favorite romance from The Goldbergs ended with AJ Michalka, as Lainey, boarding a plane on her way to Los Angeles at some point in the 1980s. Their quirky relationship was, for the time being at least, over, and Lainey was pinning her hopes on a professional music career.

Cue the opening moments of Schooled, Michalka's new spin-off series, which premiered January 9 on ABC. It's 1990-something, her music career has failed to take off, and Lainey - who needs some way to pay the bills - applies for a job as music teacher at her old school, William Penn Academy.

It takes just a brief but key cameo from an intimidating Beverly Goldberg (Wendi McLendon-Covey) to convince new principal John Glascott (Tim Meadows) to give the inexperienced 20-something the job.

"So here we are, 10 years later. She's back at her old high school, and Glascott has given her this opportunity -- knowing she's not a teacher, but knowing she has the potential," Michalka says. "So now I'm trying to figure out what kind of teacher I am and how I can inspire these kids."

But, what does that mean for Lainey and Barry?

Michalka laughed. "I can definitely say that Barry makes an appearance towards the end of the season," she said. "It's going to be exciting for Barry-Lainey fans."

But do they get back together?

"I will say, he works very hard to get Lainey back," Michalka said. Beyond that, she won't reveal any juicy details.

Of course, that might leave room for a new romantic lead, such as hip young teacher C.B. (Brett Dier), who starts out the series annoying Lainey but gradually earns her respect.

"C.B. is a little bit of a goofball and a nutjob in his own way," she explained. "She realizes what a great teacher he is, and that's kind of sexy to Lainey."

The spin-off, which has enjoyed a positive critical response and a loyal audience since its debut, had a rocky start.

Originally fronted as a vehicle for Nia Long as Glascott's sister Lucy, the series stalled a few times before being reinvented with Michalka in the leading role.

It was a stressful period, Michalka admitted.

"Obviously in this industry, every step of the way is a nailbiter," she said. "Things can fall apart in a second."

But Goldbergs creator and showrunner Adam F. Goldberg "was never going to give up on this spin-off," Michalka said. "And ABC really believed in this show."

That can leave actors a bundle of nerves, she admitted.

"It's a touch and go industry," she explained. "You have a job, and then you might not the next day.  But it's a really special show, and I'm glad it's getting a shot."

Michalka's journey, in a way, reflects her character's.

"Lainey has been through a lot," she said. "She believed everything would work out. She would have a music career. Now she's faced with the harsh reality that things don't always work out the way you thought.

"That doesn't mean things are going badly," she added. "I'm not going backwards. I'm moving forwards. I'm actually going to empower people at this school. I'm giving back to the people who gave something to me."

Michalka's musical background - primarily with her sister Aly Michalka (iZombie), with whom she recorded and toured as the pop duo Aly & AJ (and, briefly, 78violet) - puts her in a solid position to play a music teacher.

She was largely homeschooled by her mother, Carrie Begley-Michalka, who is also a singer, and since launching her own music career more than a decade ago, Michalka has "been able to work with some incredible producers, some wonderful writers," she said.

"There have been quite a few music mentors who have inspired some of the knowledge that I'm able to bring into this role," she said. "That leads to some really cool moments Lainey has with these kids."

In the pilot episode, for instance, she inspires a disaffected teenager by transforming a decades-old doo-wop concert tradition into a spirited grunge performance. In a later episode, Lainey digs into her own pockets to fund a high school production of Rent, which helps some floundering students find joy in what felt like them to be a hackneyed process.

"In a weird way, I feel like some of my musical ups and downs mirror Lainey's," Michalka said.

There was a 10-year period when AJ & Aly "weren't working at all," she explained.

"We had gotten signed at such a young age, we didn't really know where our music was headed," she said. "That's something Lainey is going through. Where is her music headed? Is it something she wants to pursue professionally, or does she want to stay in academics?"

For the moment, at least, Michalka said Lainey enjoys passing her love of music on to another generation.

"A lot of my musical passions on this show are being infused into my students," she said. "She's passing the torch onto her students."

She'd love to see her character direct the students in something like City of Angels, Chicago or a throwback performance of Grease.

"Getting the students in that zone would be really cool," Michalka said.

While Michalka is tight-lipped about most aspects of the upcoming season, she did drop a few hints of what's to come.

In episode 10, for instance, the show will take a few cues from Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, a 1997 comedy starring Mira Sorvino and Lisa Kudrow.

"You're going to see a lot of familiar faces come back to William Penn who did not realize Lainey was working there," Michalka promised. "And I'm sure you can guess who will be the Romy to my Michele."

Viewers can expect new developments in Lainey's relationship with C.B., although Michalka said they shouldn't be impatient for a new romance.

"We don't want to push too many storylines in season 1," she said. "There's a lot of story to tell."

And, while that means viewers "are definitely going to see a lot of Goldberg crossovers in Schooled," Michalka doesn't know yet if she'll be returning to The Goldbergs (now in its sixth season).

"That's up to Adam," she said. "If he wants me, I'm in."

Meanwhile, besides getting ready for a new album release and tour with her sister, Michalka said she simply enjoys doing this series.

"I love working on a comedy," she said. "Every day is a fun. ... Every day, I come home in a great mood.

"Bathing in the sunlight of Schooled, I'm not really thinking about what's next."

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