Saturday, March 24, 2018

Class Clown: NBC’s A.P. Bio

Glenn Howerton as high school teacher, Jack Griffin, in A.P. Bio.

There’s a forced wholesomeness to some network television that’s enough to make you want to puke. The commercially motivated impulse to create entertainment that appeals to some imaginary Middle-American audience easily suckered by anodyne content and blatant moralizing can often lead to a product that feels cynically calculated, rather than the genuine result of a sincere outlook.

That’s part of why I’ve found NBC’s A.P. Bio so refreshing, at least insofar as its early episodes have proven willing to buck that trend. Created by Saturday Night Live alum Mike O’Brien, the comedy follows Jack Griffin (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Glenn Howerton), a former Harvard philosophy professor who’s been forced to retreat in ignominy to Toledo, Ohio, where his old friend Ralph Durbin uses his role as principal at a local high school to get Jack a sinecure teaching Advanced Placement Biology. The concept is fairly straightforward but nevertheless promising: O’Brien is obviously reversing the well-worn trope of the enthusiastic teacher who takes a group of apathetic and often underprivileged kids and gets through to them, inspiring them to achieve their full potential. Instead, the kids are all nerdy, straight-arrow overachievers and the teacher’s an unrepentant asshole (there’s a running gag in which Jack will finish whatever he’s eating as he enters the classroom and then carelessly hurls the remnants in the general direction of the garbage can, which he misses every time).

Rather than teach a single page from the class’s biology textbooks, Jack puts his pupils to work to find ways to destroy his professional rival and replacement at Harvard, Miles Leonard (Tom Bennett). Howerton’s fun to watch as he gives a loose, slouching performance that conveys Jack’s façade of apathy while providing glimpses of the genuine hurt that he’s trying to hide. He’s hit a professional nadir and is living in his late mother’s house; in one early episode, his students plan to show up there and confront him about his failure to do his job, only to turn back in dismay when they see the state he’s in.

While Jack’s at the core of the show, other parts don’t feel quite as well-developed yet. Patton Oswalt is entertaining as the put-upon Ralph, but O’Brien and his writers haven’t quite figured out what to do with characters like Stef (Lyric Lewis), Mary (Mary Sohn), and Michelle (Jean Villepique), the trio of teachers with whom Jack hangs out in the faculty lounge, usually in the middle of his class. So far the younger actors who play Jack’s students have mostly been required to react to whatever outrageous request he makes of them, and they don’t fully register as anything other than stereotypical Type-A students, although Allisyn Ashley Arm has made an impression as the deceptively dorky Heather.

As always with shows that are designed to run for multiple seasons, the question is: how long can this premise be sustained? While A.P. Bio’s refusal to offer life lessons and heartwarming moments is appealing right now, it’s unclear how it will develop from its initial status quo. At some point, you suspect that Jack is going to start bonding with his students, and that characters will learn Valuable Life Lessons. That may be necessary to give some long-term structure and narrative interest to the show, but it may diminish some of the acidic tone that makes it so refreshingly different from much of the rest of network television at the moment.

Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for WBUR's Cognoscentipage and HowlRound. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory

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