AP Bio review – School of Rock meets Community in madcap sitcom

Rebecca Nicholson
·4 min read

AP Bio (Sky Comedy) has taken a little while to find its feet, but the third season of this madcap sitcom could not have arrived at a more welcome time. Glenn Howerton of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia plays Dr Jack Carson Griffin, a former Harvard philosophy lecturer whose professional failures have led him back to his home town of Toledo, Ohio, where he ends up teaching biology to high school students. Jack is less interested in educating his pupils on the finer points of DNA than he is in using them as pawns in his own schemes and scams, which are always vengeful and usually petty. Think of it as a non-festive Bad Santa spliced with School of Rock, with the perkiness of Community.

There is an endless amount of discussion to be had on the finer points of difference between British and American comedies, but often American comedy packs so many gags into a 20- to 25-minute timeframe that it makes British writers look slovenly. AP Bio (advanced placement biology) is zippy in the way that 30 Rock is zippy, and there is rarely a scene or a line that doesn’t at least reach for a laugh. In this opening episode, Jack attempts to relive a moment of childhood happiness by making popcorn in the vintage machine he has had since he was a boy. When it breaks, he tries to purchase a replacement online, but makes the “we’ve all been there” mistake of buying a miniature replica instead. “Internet pro tip, man, always scroll down,” says one of the many students who has far more common sense than he does.

Instead of recognising that he made an entirely avoidable error, Jack – of course – puts his classroom to work and plans a revenge attack on “Granny Shitbird”, the elderly owner of a shop that sells dolls’ houses and their accoutrements, who shipped him the mini machine. One of the students suggests pretending to sell her miniature furniture, only to send her full-sized versions instead. But star student Anthony – avoiding PE, surrounded by sparkles, working on a post-Hamilton multimedia art project involving glitter bombs – has a better idea. You expect it to go wrong. It does go wrong. But it’s terrifically funny along the way.

Partly, this is due to the pace. Whitlock high school exists in a state of permanent chaos under Principal Durbin, played with good grace and well-meaning confusion by Patton Oswalt. Durbin is mid-divorce and is soothing his woes with self-help books and optimism. The school is habitually on the edge of meltdown and secretary Helen turns out to have been the pin in the grenade. After revealing that she had not graduated from high school, she is forced to go back to try to get her diploma. This episode finds her in a different part of the same school that she works in, attempting to get some actual teaching out of Jack. “Outta my way, boomers!” she yells, as she thunders past her colleagues and towards class, wearing her backpack with pride. Unfortunately for everyone except the viewers, Helen’s absence from work means the school office explodes into a mess of frazzled phone calls, inadequate meatballs and condoms stapled to cardboard flyers.

Paula Pell, from Saturday Night Live, plays Helen as the all-time comedy-great character that she would, in any just universe, rightly become. It is a masterclass in physical comedy and far-fetched stories. Naturally, Jack is frustrated by the woman he calls an “incoherent word hose”, but while it is often ridiculous and petty, AP Bio is never vicious. It is sharp, occasionally mean, and dark enough, but never nasty – content, instead, to be daft.

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AP Bio almost didn’t get a second chance to find its feet, having been cancelled after two seasons by its US network, and then given a last-minute reprieve, in part because of a small but vocal fanbase. I wonder if it had teething troubles because the set-up is relatively familiar – reluctant antihero returns home and messes things up – but then, it doesn’t set out to break the mould. Rather than hanging on a clever-clever concept, this is a case of well-crafted execution, and it wins extra marks for having actors playing students who look within reaching distance of being teenagers themselves. I am very glad AP Bio dodged the axe. It deserves to be far bigger than it is.