There are a few things you can count on with broadcast television sitcoms: sterilized jokes that sound like they’re pushing boundaries, but really aren’t; an archetypal cast of characters who serve as protagonist or antagonist for any given situation; a lack of realism that stems from each episode’s central conflict resolution, or at least dismissal, by episode’s end.
There’s nothing wrong with these tropes; they’re sometimes fun and at least comfortable. Though with the likes of Modern Family or a much worse case, How I Met Your Mother, they’re lacking one important aspect: unadulterated humor.
Not so with A.P. Bio, one of NBC’s newest attempts at making their channel once again the destination for comedy on Thursday night in America.
While A.P. Bio doesn’t fully break free of these sitcom restraints, it does manage to find multitudes more laugh-out-loud moments in them than its predecessors of the last several years.
The premise is simple, if not a little pedestrian: a disgraced Harvard philosophy PhD returns to his Ohio hometown, resides in his dead mother’s apartment, and takes on the job of teaching (which he has no intention of doing whatsoever) a rigorous Advanced Placement Biology high school class in order to make a living. It’s a spin on the School of Rock model, sure; however, its centerpiece isn’t the lovable, oblivious teddy bear Jack Black, but the smug, snarky Glenn Howerton (best known for the even more smug and snarky Dennis Reynolds from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) as the scholar Jack Griffin. Howerton delivers an upper echelon mix of wit and selfishness to each line reading and that keeps, for example, his repeated phrase of “Everyone start to shut up now” at the beginning of each class from being annoying to just funnier each time. Another humorous twist that keeps the show from being a standard high school farce involves Jack Griffin’s dark obsession with taking down his rival philosopher, who has found best-selling success via pithy writing, and using his bright students’ ideas to do so. These attacks aren’t only a highlight of the first episode but they help quickly establish just who some of these intelligent students are: Aparna Brielle as the way-too-worried-about-her-grades student Sarika, Nick Peine as the nerdy Marcus, and Jacob Houston as the meek, sweater-wearing Victor are particular stand outs.
The show, from the mind of Mike O’Brien (a former writer and castmate of Saturday Night Live), finds its definite tonal footing after the first two episodes. There’s a certain edge that O’Brien brings to prime time, too. While It’s Always Sunny does this to more extremes — the likes of which wouldn’t be accepted by NBC — A.P. Bio does manage to have some teeth in its bite: Jack repeatedly reminding his students of how many women that he’s “banged” often by writing the exact number (25, if you must know) on the chalk board; the twisted John the Baptist imagery of Jack drowning all of the loud, annoying, crying toy babies used by the Health class in lieu of actual sex ed; or the introduction of “The Tickler” from the second episode who is sentenced to “Teacher Jail” for inappropriately giving coworkers a — you guessed it — tickle or two.
Add in Patton Oswalt as the hapless principal who succumbs to Jack’s every whim and Lyric Lewis (Mad TV) as the candid fellow teacher Stef and the show hits more than a few of its comical beats.
A.P. Bio is the best sitcom airing on broadcast television. It is great at both shining a light and finding the ridiculous humor in the problematic man-child; it’s a man-child who is often in charge of the world: a dilemma because sometimes the students have it more together than the teachers.