We’ve seen our share of ambivalent, cynical educators on screens big and small over the past decade-plus. In School of Rock, Bad Teacher, TV Land’s Teachers, HBO’s Vice Principals, and Netflix’s American Vandal — to say nothing of The Simpsons or Election — pop culture has repeatedly subverted the notion of the noble, good-hearted teacher for the purposes of dark comedy.
A.P. Bio, which gets an early premiere Thursday night on NBC before it returns for good in March, post-Olympics, is another unapologetic addition to this genre, and I have very mixed feelings about its existence. The pilot, written by creator and Saturday Night Live alum Mike O’Brien, announces immediately that protagonist Jack Griffin (Glenn Howerton of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) is a hostile mess of a person at an especially low point in his life. Then it spends the next 25 minutes aggressively insisting that we laugh at the inappropriate behavior in which this sad, angry man engages.
After losing his job as a disgraced Harvard philosophy professor, he shows up for his first day as a high school teacher with a bang, and also a crash: In the first scene, Jack slams his car into the brick sign in front of Ohio’s Whitlock High School, then just leaves it there and rolls on into class. He arrives that morning, and on every other morning, in a cardigan paired with sweatpants, suggesting he’s a snobby scholar up top and a lazy stock character from an Adam Sandler movie down below. After explaining that he lost his job at Harvard and that he’s currently living in Toledo in his dead mother’s apartment, he informs his students — all of them variations on geek stereotypes — that he has no intention of teaching them biology.
“This won’t be one of those things where, over the course of a year, I secretly teach it to you,” Jack explains, batting down one of the tropes of the typical high school teacher story. “This also won’t be one of those things where I end up learning more from you than you do from me. I know more than all of you combined, so that doesn’t make any sense.”
Instead, Jack enlists them in his current mission: to bring down his nemesis, Miles (Tom Bennett), who is currently the head of philosophy at Stanford University, a job Jack wanted for himself. The kids’ first assignment? Write provocative messages to Miles that can be used to catfish him online.
I’ll stop there because you probably get the picture. Assuming you do, then you may be struggling to figure out whether there is a worse time than right now to launch a sitcom about an obnoxious man-baby who’s terrible at his job but still gets to keep it, and expects everyone, including the minors he verbally abuses, to cater to his every whim. I thought about this for a while and … nope, I couldn’t think of a worse time. The series feels a little too mean-spirited, not to mention conceptually played-out, at a moment when a lot of people are weary of meanness.
All of that said, like high school itself, A.P. Bio, whose executive producers include Seth Meyers and Lorne Michaels, does get a little better. The three subsequent episodes, which NBC made available in advance, are less forced and deliver more laughs than the pilot does. Jack, played by Howerton with a stubborn intelligence that differentiates his characters from the typical slacker, doesn’t exactly soften in future episodes, but he does come across as somewhat more human. He’s also surrounded by great supporting players, like Patton Oswalt as the frazzled Principal Durbin and Paula Pell as Durbin’s assistant, as well as solid guest stars, including Niecy Nash, who appears in episode two as a teacher’s union rep with a long-standing beef with Durbin. During a hearing, she attempts to prove he’s out-to-lunch by revealing the recent search terms he’s typed in to Google during the work day. One of them: “Kokomo is it real.”
“Why are the other ones real?” Durbin asks in his own Beach Boys-confused defense. “Aruba, Jamaica…”
The more A.P. Bio swerves toward quirky jokes like that and away from its attempts at “edginess,” the better it is. It also could improve if and when it addresses some of the questions that it goes out of its way to avoid. Like: why, exactly, was Jack fired from Harvard? Is Miles really a bad guy, or does Jack simply resent him for his own skewed, personal reasons? Most importantly, why the hell was Jack hired to teach A.P. biology when his academic background is in philosophy, and why does he get to keep teaching it when the students clearly aren’t learning anything? I doubt we’ll ever get an answer to that one, which drives me almost as crazy as the fact that the teachers on this show are still using chalk. (I can’t remember the last time I saw a classroom with an actual chalkboard in it.)
If the world of A.P. Bio had been established with the cuckoo sensibility that enabled the cable show hijinks on Great News to credibly hire a senior citizen intern, I could maybe let some of the mushier details slide. (It doesn’t help that Great News previously owned this NBC time slot.) But like its protagonist, at this stage, A.P. Bio is a guy with a bad attitude and little sense of direction, one who has some potential but is too committed to his own cynical plans to do something actually great.