Want to be uncomfortable? Watch 'A.P. Bio'

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Glenn Howerton as Jack in A.P. Bio. (Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

A.P. Bio stars Glenn Howerton from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia as Jack Griffin, a philosophy scholar who’s lost his job at Harvard and, down on his luck, is stuck teaching advanced-placement biology in a Toledo, Ohio, high school. The show’s engine runs almost entirely on the strength of Howerton’s poker-faced contempt: He doesn’t want to be in this classroom, he tells the kids he’s not going to teach them anything about biology, and he feigns interest in the other teachers and the principal (who’s played by Patton Oswalt) only in order to ridicule them. It’s not a pleasant show to watch.

Which is odd, because it’s made by some very comedy-savvy people. In addition to Howerton and Oswalt in front of the camera, there are the show’s creators: producers Seth Meyers, Lorne Michaels, and Mike O’Brien. The series, premiering tonight on NBC, really seems to be O’Brien’s baby — he wrote the pilot and oversees a lot of the show. O’Brien is a former Saturday Night Live writer (a “featured performer” for one season) and someone who has specialized in the cool-kid category of uncomfortable comedy with his “7 Minutes in Heaven” short films, in which he interviews a celebrity in a closet and tries to kiss the famous person at the end of the interview.

In A.P. Bio, the uncomfortableness resides in the reaction of the students to their new teacher, Jack. Since this is an advanced-placement class, these are kids who are genuinely interested in the subject of biology. They’re disappointed that Jack turns out to be a hip dude exuding rebellion and irony. In theory, it’s a nice flip of the more common sitcom setup, in which kids would usually be shown to be thrilled that their rule-breaking teacher was showing them how to, you know, really enjoy life! But in practice, A. P. Bio ends up ridiculing the students. They’re stereotyped as wearing nerdy glasses — lookit the four-eyes! — and being socially awkward. It’s also telling that the three teachers in the school break room with whom Jack regularly interacts are all women, since these teachers are portrayed primarily as superficial chatterboxes who are easily duped by Jack’s charm. Not progressive, to put it mildly.

A.P. Bio seemed to me to be a throwback to the National Lampoon style of raucous, privileged-white-boy humor to be found in Animal House, Caddyshack, and a lot of first-generation SNL material. Howerton, who’s so distinctive in It’s Always Sunny, here acts as though the producers told him to do an impersonation of Joel McHale in Community. The funniest moment of A.P. Bio that I watched occurred in the second episode, which had Niecy Nash as a guest star. Nash’s more democratic and behaviorally authentic performing style gave A.P. Bio a warmer glow than the show possesses without her.

A.P. Bio airs Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. on NBC.

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