The Buzz: 'A.P. Bio' Succumbs to Too Many Sitcom Clichés
The cold open to A.P. Bio, NBC’s latest sitcom, manages to lay out both the strengths and weaknesses of what is to come. Here we have Jack Griffin (Glenn Howerton), a self-described "award-winning philosophy scholar" who finds himself living in Toledo and teaching advanced placement biology at a local high school. He makes his time-wasting intentions clear to the class, while hilariously undercutting the eccentric teacher/quirky class dynamic we’ve come to expect from films like Dead Poets Society and School of Rock:
"This won't be one of those things where over the course of a year I secretly teach [it] to you. 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.”
It's a thesis worth salivating for in a climate that’s stuffed to the gills with lukewarm sitcoms, but it’s one that A.P. Bio shies away from on the whole. Instead, the series tries to have its self-aware cake and eat it too, lambasting the clichéd premise and characters while largely playing it straight. Griffin is certainly a piece of work, but after three episodes, he’s already begun to establish connections with his students and fall into the same “cranky yet charming” teacher that we’ve seen on the small screen for decades. More uncouth, perhaps, but the same nonetheless.
I admit that some of these qualms may have to do with the casting of Howerton, formerly (and possibly still?) of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia fame. As series co-creator and onscreen ringleader Dennis Reynolds, Howerton was allowed to take the character into such twisted and consistently unsettling comedic territory that it would be remiss to expect anything less. As Griffin, one gets the sense that his manic instincts as a performer are, uncomfortably, being subdued for more family friendly humor. Granted, the teacher still gets in a few killer jokes ("This is going to be your opportunity to take a nap, and if you're not tired, pop an Advil P.M. and you will be out, trust me") and a smug, sociopathic cool that'll be familiar to Philadelphia fans, but seeing Howerton give advice to a student or consider the feelings of a fellow employee feel too much like sitcom obligators. The man is at his peak when he’s putting people down.
A.P. Bio’s supporting cast is a mixed bag, with some complimenting Howerton’s caustic attitude and others feeling as though they were abducted from a universe where TV stereotypes are still prevalent. The trio of high school teachers (Lyric Lewis, Mary Sohn, Jean Villepique) who give Griffin advice are tolerable, interspersing solid punchlines with stale humor at such a rate that their scenes are more or less a wash. The actors who play the students occupy a similarly lukewarm place, as none of them have especially defined arcs yet, and the ones who have been singled out, like Sarika (Aparna Brielle) and Devin (Jacob McCarthy), occupy the typical “smart girl” and “troubled outcast” roles that we’ve come to expect from this sort of premise.
Niecy Nash shows up as the teacher equivalent of a defense lawyer when Griffin gets in trouble, and while it may have sounded good on paper, Nash plays it with such manic hamminess that it distracts from everyone else in the worst way. The scene where she (literally) barks at Patton Oswalt’s hapless Principal Durbin in the hallway is such a groaner that you may find yourself involuntarily facepalming. Ugh, I know I did. Especially since Oswalt, a comedian with ace comedic timing, is the show’s inarguable highlight next to Howerton. Desperate to maintain authority while still wanting to be cool enough to get drinks with Griffin, he’s lovable and dorky in all the ways the latter isn’t. Putting these two together has been a very good thing for the series thus far.
While I can applaud Howerton’s efforts to stretch his talents, and take on a more conventional sitcom that It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, I can’t help but watch A.P. Bio and feel a nagging sense of disappointment. As Philadelphia faces an uncertain future, particularly with regards to Howerton’s involvement, there's discomfort in watching him churn out similar jokes in a less comedically inspired environment. I concede that there is great talent involved in the show, from Howerton to Oswalt to executive producers Seth Meyers and Lorne Michaels, but A.P. Bio feels anything but advanced, and will have to cram in some serious studying if it wants to hold my attention into a second season.
Episodes of A.P. Bio air on NBC on Thursdays at 9:30 P.M. ET