If NBC’s new comedy AP Bio were a high school senior, it would have a solid roster of extracurriculars, a winning personality made for entrance interviews, and it would write thoughtful and introspective college essays. The only thing keeping it from getting into the university of its choice would be a report card listing straight Cs.
To crack my deeply complicated analogy code: As a TV show, AP Bio has nearly everything you’d want in a comedy, including a solid premise, a great cast and a particular visual style. The only thing holding it back is the small quibble that it’s not actually all that funny.
Created by longtime Saturday Night Live writer (and very briefly underutilized featured player) Mike O’Brien, AP Bio is the story of Jack Griffin (Glenn Howerton), a hotshot philosophy scholar (in a world in which such things exist) forced to teach advanced placement biology at an Ohio public school after leaving his professorial gig at Harvard in disgrace. Now living in his recently deceased mom’s apartment in Toledo, Jack is determined to utilize his brainy students to get revenge on his philosophy rival, get his job back and leave Ohio without Principal Durbin (Patton Oswalt) making him do any real teaching.
Jack is such a bad teacher that you’d call the show Bad Teacher, except that there was already a movie called Bad Teacher and a TV show called Bad Teacher, and the tropes of the bad teacher genre are so entrenched that Jack begins his first class with the declaration, “This won’t be one of those things where I secretly teach [biology] to you. This also won’t be one of those things where I end up learning more from you than you do from me.”
It’s a clever statement, especially when delivered by Howerton, who wields caustic disinterest as one of the most effective tools in his comic chest after more than a decade working on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. If you were going to cast a rakish, occasionally disheveled bad teacher with little interest in actually teaching, Howerton is a great choice. Similarly, if you were going to cast a nebbishy school principal eager to make friends and reticent to embrace power or leadership, Oswalt is perfect, albeit entirely overqualified.
Jack’s observation is, of course, disingenuous. We know he’s going to learn from the kids, though whether or not he teaches them biology is close to irrelevant. It also points to the biggest problem with the series, which is that it’s self-consciously resistant to the genre’s most traditional arcs and, in lieu of those traditional arcs, it’s a series without an episodic engine. Or, put a different way, it’s a situation comedy that’s resistant to “situation.”
Through four episodes sent to critics, the guest stars inserted into the vague episodic plotlines are consistently more interesting than whatever they’re doing there. Erinn Hayes is winning as the mother of one of Jack’s students who he predictably tries to romance, but after introducing her character, the rest of that episode fizzles. Niecy Nash is reliably brash and amusing as a union rep who takes up Jack’s cause after a low-key misdeed, but the build-up in her episode amounts to nothing. Paula Pell, like O’Brien a Saturday Night Live scribe who has dabbled on camera, has one decent episode as an over-eager nurse whose approach to a teaching opportunity is the opposite of Jack’s, but not so much the opposite that it goes anywhere. Every episode’s main storyline screams, “We know we have to do a plot like this, but we don’t want to rely on cliches and we don’t know what to do as an alternative.” I don’t know if AP Bio wants to be subversive and NBC isn’t comfortable being too subversive, or if the writers aren’t quite sure what subversion in this case would look like. As it stands, the general mode is, “What can Jack do that’s bad, but not bad enough so that he’d get permanently fired from what is already an absurdly cushy gig in which he teaches only one class that he isn’t qualified for and yet is treated as a regular teacher?”
Somehow, the Jack plotlines are still much, much more consistently developed than B-stories relating to three of Jack’s fellow teachers (played by Lyric Lewis, Mary Sohn and Jean Villepique), who are all just basically there. It isn’t the fault of any of the three actresses that without looking at my notes, I couldn’t tell you anything those three characters did in any of the four episodes. I think in one of them, one of the teachers may be encouraging her students to paint her partially disrobed and this causes controversy? Maybe? It’s possible, however, that I just made that up. They’re not well-conceived characters.
The students, on the other hand, are being very slowly developed, and that may be the place in which I see AP Bio displaying the most potential to evolve beyond its two male leads. Jack may not want to play according to “unconventional educator” genre rules, but the nerdy misfits in Jack’s class embody familiar roles and, at a rate of one per episode generally, do it well. So far, I’ve gotten laughs from Tucker Albrizzi as saxophone-playing ginger Colin, Nick Peine as student council nerd Marcus and, particularly, Allisyn Ashley Arm, getting good mileage as an introvert yearning to unfurl her freak flag. Why the show’s B-stories relate to underdeveloped teachers and not to the students is a bit of a mystery to me.
Praise is also due to Oz Rodriguez, director of the pilot and several early episodes, for establishing an aesthetic that is instantly distinctive. There’s a highly stylized drabness typified by accentuating certain colors like teal and orange at the expense of primary colors. I wasn’t always sure I knew what the look was going for. Is it about making background chalkboards pop? That sometimes the show looks almost like a comic, Ohio version of Miami Vice, is confusing yet also admirable in a world in which so few comedies take visual risks.
Like any good guidance counselor, I want to encourage AP Bio. No, it isn’t living up to its potential yet, but I’m convinced that if it just applies itself to its work, it could be something really good. For now, I’d just settle for the show becoming as funny as the people in the show are capable of being.
Cast: Glenn Howerton, Patton Oswalt, Lyric Lewis, Mary Sohn, Jean Villepique, Tom Bennett, Paula Pell, Charlie McCrackin, Jacob McCarthy, Aparna Brielle, Nick Peine, Allisyn Ashley Arm, Eddie Leavy, Jacob Houston, Sari Arambulo, Tucker Albrizzi, Spence Moore II
Creator: Mike O’Brien
Executive producers: Mike O’Brien, Seth Meyers, Mike Shoemaker, Andrew Singer, Lorne Michaels
Preview: Thursday, 9:30 p.m. ET/PT (NBC); regular premiere March 1.