NBC’s ‘A.P. Bio’ Falls Short of Its Potential

howerton-ap-bioMike O’Brien’s new show A.P. Bio, whose pilot previewed on NBC last night in advance of the official series premiere on March 1st, is Glenn Howerton’s first starring role since his sort-of leaving It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Coincidentally, like Kaitlin Olson on The Mick, A.P. Bio casts Howerton playing a callow jerk playing off a cast of children. Just before the action of the pilot, Howerton’s character (Jack Griffin) was denied tenure at Harvard (teaching philosophy) at roughly the same time his mother died; Jack had a breakdown and returned home to Toledo, Ohio, where an ineffectual high school principal played by Patton Oswalt hired him to teach advanced placement biology. Jack knows nothing about biology and is interested only in getting laid and seeking revenge against his philosophy professor rival, played by Tom Bennett. Unlike on The Mick, Jack isn’t a lovable dirtbag with the students’ best interests at heart: he’s completely indifferent to their well-being and is concerned only with his selfish desires that are destroying his life. The cast and setting have potential, but the show is neither warm enough to make up for its paltry jokes nor funny enough to make up for its misanthropy. Like too many single-camera network sitcoms, it attempts to straddle the line between being a sitcom about a makeshift family and a sitcom about horrible people getting what’s coming to them and ends up failing to completely satisfy either format.

If the premise of “teacher who doesn’t care about students” sounds familiar, it may be because it’s nearly identical to the premise of Bad Teacher, the short-lived series based on the Cameron Diaz movie. There are also two series currently on the air about self-involved teachers, Teachers and Those Who Can’t, not to mention Vice Principals and probably a few other series I’m missing. This is to say, a sitcom with an egotistical teacher at its center needs to bring something extra to the table to stand out. A.P. Bio has its charms, to be sure: It is frequently funny, particularly with visual gags (a moment of Howerton rolling into the room on a desk chair was a high point of the pilot), and characters’ wardrobes are incredibly specific to high school personality types. Past that, though, Jack is just any cranky white guy who thinks he’s brilliant. A bit like Earn on Atlanta, it’s indicated both explicitly and implicitly that Jack is severely depressed and feeling out of control, but now that Jack is in Toledo, there are no consequences for his behavior. Certainly Jack was put in the position he’s in (leaving Harvard for a high school in Toledo) by his poor choices, but as A.P. Bio settles in, it really does seem more like a series of events that end after twenty minutes than like stories with beginnings, chain reactions, and conclusions. One episode features the incomparable Niecy Nash as his union representative trying to help Jack get out of “teacher jail,” ending with all exactly where they started. If the show lasts, there’s plenty of room to adjust this — the premise is strong, if not entirely original — but the first handful of episodes are mostly a white guy in a classroom saying inappropriate things to high schoolers.

A.P. Bio is full of red herring details. Like the Spanish class on Community, that Jack teaches biology doesn’t really matter — as Jack explains early on, he will neither secretly teach the students biology nor learn life lessons from them. Neither does Jack’s background in philosophy matter, unfortunately. Jack joins Chidi Anagonye as NBC’s newest philosophy professor character, but unlike Chidi, Jack doesn’t apply philosophy to any of the situations in which he finds himself. He spends most of an episode with fellow teacher Mark Proksch, with whom he connects over a shared interest in philosophy, but their conversation doesn’t verge much past Plato and Aristotle. This is fine, of course. Not every NBC sitcom needs to provide an intro-level course in philosophy. It does, however, speak to the series’s strangely specific choices that are ultimately superficial. Three teachers explain that they became friends after two used to bully the third, but that dynamic doesn’t really end up informing their interactions elsewhere. Jack adds a student to his class without any authorization, then that student has almost nothing to do in subsequent episodes. All of the choices the series makes seem justified and clever, but few of them really pay off in the episodes available to critics.

The performances in A.P. Bio are fairly universally strong. Glenn Howerton is an excellent comic actor, though it’s hard to watch him in a role that feels so much less fleshed out than his lived-in-for-over-a-decade Dennis Reynolds. Patton Oswalt does a decent job playing the principal who desperately wants to be Jack’s friend, though he’s given few other notes to play. Mary Sohn, as art teacher Mary, is the real breakout performance. Mary is almost as self-absorbed as Jack, but much more idiosyncratically so. Sohn plays her with a hilarious confidence that makes all of her scenes stand out. Mary’s cohort, fellow teachers Stef (Lyric Lewis) and Michelle (Jean Villepique), are also very funny, but they’re not given much to do in the pilot. That changes as the season progresses, luckily, but they’re all still playing second banana to Jack, whose storylines tend to be much less interesting (like his attempt to sleep with one of his students’ parents, played by Erinn Hayes in an incredibly thankless role). The student performances are very good, particularly Aparna Brielle, Tucker Albrizzi, and Allisyn Ashley Arm. While each get their moments in the first few episodes, the show’s world is not yet textured enough that one gets a sense of what they do when they’re not in biology class, a relatively small part of any high school student’s life.

This is the case for Jack as well. There are a handful of scenes that take place outside the school, but they’re very few and far between. When Jack is arrested for peeing on a hospital, it’s not shown onscreen — just described by Jack with crude chalkboard drawings. By focusing on what happens mainly on the AP Bio classroom, the show does its story and characters a bit of disservice. In one episode, the students conspire to get Jack replaced by a series of substitute teachers, including the legendary Paula Pell enthusiastically discussing her reproductive anatomy. As some of them indicate early on, they’re in AP Bio because they want to actually learn something, not just tend to Jack’s hangovers. Advanced placement classes in high school are sites of extremely high anxiety and racial, class, and gender stratification. It’s a point of focus with plenty of room to satirize public education and high achievement standards. Instead, the show completely skips past the subject, never mentioning that the students Jack refuses to teach will have to, at some point, take the AP test.

Since Jack himself has a past at Harvard, it would seem the perfect opportunity to use his character’s cynicism and experience to puncture the hopes of Ivy League-bound students. Again, it mostly just doesn’t. Jack could just be any teacher with tenure who’s checked out of teaching; AP Bio could be any subject. A.P. Bio has lots of potential, but it’s hard to find something to latch onto. If the show were better, it would be easier to ignore that it’s a series in 2018 about a self-involved white guy who cannot fail no matter how verbally abusive he is. Since the show is as middling as Jack is, though, it’s hard not to focus on the way this broadcast network is refusing to grow its programming. Glenn Howerton has spent over ten years deflating the centrality of white guys who feel above it all — several episodes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia directly parody this kind of sitcom. Perhaps this is a natural outgrowth of a TV schedule full of sitcom revivals — A.P. Bio is the exact genre of bland, unoriginal series we all thought we’d left behind years ago. It can be much funnier, but like Jack, doesn’t seem to care enough to try.

Harry Waksberg is a writer and lazeabout based in Riverside, CA. He is the creator and writer of the web series Doing Good.

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