Class struggles: ‘AP Bio’ is a solid sitcom that’s not for this moment

By Jim Sabataso
Correspondent

When I first heard about “A.P. Bio” — the new NBC sitcom created by Mike O’Brien and Seth Meyers and starring Glenn Howerton and Patton Oswalt — I was fully on board. The trailers promised just the sort of snarky, acerbic “no lessons, no hugs” sitcom I tend to enjoy.

For years, Howerton has played smug Dennis Reynolds on “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” Oswalt, meanwhile, is a tremendous standup comedian who’s carved out a niche as a game character actor.

Both O’Brien and Meyers cut their teeth in the “Saturday Night Live” writers’ room. (This series, like just about every other sitcom currently in NBC’s primetime lineup, is executive produced by “SNL” creator and EP Lorne Michaels.) During his time at 30 Rock, O’Brien scribed some of the show’s weirder and funnier sketches of that era, including “Grow a Guy” and “Monster Pals.”

However, on “A.P Bio,” the sum just isn’t as impressive as its parts. Howerton plays Jack Griffin a disgraced Harvard philosopher who returns to teach advanced-placement biology at the high school in his hometown of Toledo, Ohio.

From the start, Jack dispels any notions his new students might have that their relationship will be a “Dead Poets Society” situation — he won’t be teaching them or vice versa. Instead, the class is tasked with helping Jack seek revenge on his professional nemesis, who beat him out for tenure at Stanford, much to the chagrin of the overachieving students left in his charge.

To be sure, the premise of the series requires some suspension of disbelief. It’s unlikely a school would be so desperate to burnish its image that it would hire someone wholly unqualified for position just because he’s got Harvard on his résumé. That particular feather might be prominent in the caps hanging in the “SNL” writers’ room, but it’s far less impressive to the rest of us.

Despite its rote and somewhat derivative nature the show is elevated by a strong supporting cast, including Oswalt as Principal Durbin, a pushover of an administrator who’s desperate for Jack’s friendship and approval.

The standout, however, is former “SNL” writer Paula Pell, who steals every scene she’s in as Helen, the loyal, oversharing school secretary. Her blunt, detailed and misinformed discussion of the female reproductive system is comedy gold.

The always terrific Niecy Nash also shows up in what appears to be a recurring guest role as Kim, the teachers’ union rep and antagonist to Durbin. Nash brings a welcome dose of comic energy to her episode as she coaches Jack in how to best stick it to Durbin.

Jack follows in a long line of ostensibly lovable bastards on TV. Jeff Winger from “Community” immediately comes to mind. Eventually, that character grew a heart as he found makeshift family among his classmates.

Similarly, Jack’s hard shell is starting to show cracks by the third episode, as his students learn the depth of his despair and take pity on him and he begins to enjoy his time with them. However, it’s unclear if O’Brien and co. are truly invested in giving Jack such an arc, or if he’ll continue to pedal the bad-teacher schtick week in and week out.

What’s also unclear is if I’m personally interested in these types of characters anymore. In her review of “A.P. Bio,” NPR critic Linda Holmes makes the case that shows about nasty men abusing their power are not particularly appealing in the wake of a year of revelations of nasty men abusing their power.

It’s an argument that gets at the uneasiness I felt while screening “A.P. Bio.” Your mileage may vary, and that’s fine. There’s plenty to like here. This is a funny, well-executed piece of television that made me laugh out loud more than once. And while I can appreciate that, I’m not sure this is a show I need to revisit.

CHECK IT OUT

The first three episodes of “A.P. Bio” are now streaming on Hulu and NBC.com. Episodes air return to NBC March 1 at 9:30 p.m.

Jim Sabataso

Jim Sabataso is a freelance writer living in Vermont.

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