At any other point in time NBC’s new single-camera sitcom A.P. Bio would likely earn high marks for being a consistently funny, boasting strong performances from Glenn Howerton and Patton Oswalt. Its story of an unconventional, unmotivated high school teacher is, on the surface, a fairly conventional one, the likes of which has been seen repeatedly in film and television for years. Everything from HBO’s recent Vice Principals to Bad Teacher to School of Rock immediately comes to mind. What makes this new addition to the line-up stand out, then, is also fairly similar in that the differences essentially boil down to the series’s ability to modulate just how unlikable Howerton’s failed professor of philosophy Jack Griffin can be, and what, if anything the audience is meant to get out of his obnoxious behavior.
A.P. Bio carries itself with similar kind of unearned confidence seen in its protagonist, in that both unapologetically present themselves without a filter. Rest assured, if you’re in after this early premiere (the series begins airing regularly after the Winter Olympics), you’ll probably still be onboard by episode four. But, if after watching Jack strut around a classroom in a cardigan and sweatpants, like a child in a man-suit, bitterly tossing half-eaten apples at the garbage can and instructing his class to catfish his far more successful nemesis, you’re left uncertain whether or not this is uncomfortable comedy is for you, you might need some more time.
Imagine if Jack Black’s character in School of Rock had been modeled after the difficult men of The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, and you have a pretty good idea what Jack Griffin is like. The result, then, is a series that actively encourages its audience to embrace the miserable antics of a man-child who continues to succeed in spite of his many failures and willful shortcomings. And it’s also a series that, despite being funny and confident, is nonetheless marked by its extraordinarily bad sense of timing, as it’s difficult to imagine a more inappropriate moment to showcase the supposed edgy hilarity of men (or in this case, a man) behaving badly.
Many of the jokes in A.P. Bio are seemingly intended to make the audience uncomfortable, but even if you’ve only given the news of the past few months the most cursory of glances, the jokes will likely make you cringe for all the wrong reasons. There is an argument to be made that A.P. Bio is successful in poking fun at the sort of privilege enjoyed by sad, angry men, and that Jack’s arc is meant to see him eventually learn something positive along with the students he openly refuses to teach, but evidence of this is admittedly scant in the first two episodes. Instead, in its early going the series remains committed to presenting Jack as a particular kind of character, one that feels very outmoded at the moment.
That is likely to elicit all sorts of conflicted feelings about A.P. Bio, because, as a comedy, the series checks a good number of boxes. As mentioned above, it’s well-written for the most part, boasts a talented cast, and counts Lorne Michaels and Seth Meyers among its producers. Glenn Howerton has ostensibly made a career out of getting people to watch and respond to the unlikable and irresponsible Dennis Reynolds on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and so it’s no surprise the powers that be would think him capable of something similar here. Howerton succeeds in making Jack unrepentantly unsavory, turning an obsession with his nemesis Miles (Tom Bennett) — a fellow philosophy professor with a teaching appointment at Stanford and a bestselling book — into something that might one day become a more compelling plot. Similarly, Oswalt calms things down as Principal Durbin, the much too obliging head of the high school that for whatever reason hired a disgraced Harvard philosophy professor to teach an advanced-placement biology class.
A.P. Bio seems aware just how shaky a foundation for a story that is, and as such chooses mostly to ignore it or by putting a premium on Jack’s experience at Harvard, suggesting it somehow translates to an appealing get for a high school in Ohio. That’s fair given the show’s already casual relationship with reality, but at the same time, you can’t really fault anyone still holding out for a better explanation after four episodes.
An ability to not simply maintain but actually further its distance from the real world might be in A.P. Bio’s best interest. That would open the door for the series to segue from irascible to idiosyncratic without compromising too much of what’s already in place, especially with regard to Howerton’s shallow, self-centered Jack Griffin. To the show’s credit, the third and fourth episodes do express an interest in exploring that path, which may present an opportunity to empathize with Jack. The only problem is: it’ll be March before audiences have a chance to see these changes, suggesting again that NBC’s sense of timing with A.P. Bio couldn’t be worse.
A.P. Bio returns Thursday, February 25 @9:30pm on NBC.