A few things before we break down tonight’s pair of episodes. One, y’all who watched ahead were right: “Burning Miles” was absolutely meant to be the second episode in the series. Two, NBC still aired it after “Overachieving Virgins,” which more or less works fine as a third episode. After watching both, last Sunday’s “Teacher Jail,” which I really liked despite it being a disjointed mess, feels even more as if it were likely meant to air halfway through the season. NBC was probably banking on that Niecy Nash and Taran Killam star power to rope in the post-Olympics crowd. Still, this shit is making my brain hurt.
Because it makes everything a lot easier to discuss, I’m going to recap these two in the reverse order of when they aired. Next week, we’ll either be on some schedule of normalcy or Jack will have, I dunno, a pet pitbull that nobody comments on because it was introduced in an episode we won’t see for another four weeks.
Man, so many of the continuity and structural questions I had after the pilot are solved here. Straightaway, the kids make it clear they want to learn, not engage in Jack’s schemes; bully Dan Decker is acknowledged as a new student; Helen is properly introduced as Principal Durbin’s front office guru; and Durbin himself is still trying to be Jack’s friend after a pilot spent trying to impress him. We’re also given ample time for the students to establish themselves as individual personalities, with Sarika emerging as the stalwart leader, Heather the closet freak, and Dan the misunderstood bully.
The episode also serves as a fine continuation of the structure established in the pilot, in which Jack vows to use his students to help “psychologically dismantle” his rival, Miles Leonard. Here, Jack tasks them first practicing British accents they can use to pose as Leonard’s biological birth mother, who will then tell him something (sexual?) that will cause him to literally kill himself. That plan goes by the wayside, however, when Jack discovers his new bookstore hangout features a display of Miles’ book. Instead of simply moving to another side of the store, he develops a plan where the students will infiltrate the bookstore by getting jobs there and dismantling the display.
Both in this episode and “Overachieving Virgins,” it’s easy to see why NBC thought to choose Howerton for the role. As with Sunny’s Dennis, Jack is as wildly egotistical as he is prone to terrifying overreactions, and much of the humor in these two episodes comes from the massive amount of effort he puts into righting the slightest wrongs. It’s Larry David syndrome: The solution might be simple, but it’s not the problem so much as the principle that offends.
I worry A.P. Bio might be making Jack’s thin a touch too thin, though. When Devin asks what Miles did to upset him so much, Jack struggles to come up with a response. Sure, the root of it is jealousy, but Jack saying it’s because he “wears scarves indoors” doesn’t give us much. How much more active and interesting would his revenge schemes be if Miles actually had done something to directly impact him, even inadvertently? This lack of motive contributes to the show’s overarching aimlessness, which remains its biggest hurdle to becoming a sustainable sitcom.
“Burning Miles” wasn’t as funny as either of its predecessors, though Paula Pell’s Helen doesn’t disappoint. Her lunatic sense of school spirit serves as an excellent foil to Jack’s impatience. “How was Harvard?” she asks, to which Jack irritably replies, “How was all of Harvard?” Coach Novak is back with another solid turn of phrase, saying it’s his job to “tire out the boys,” which just sounds unnatural.
I also really liked the development of Dan as a multi-faceted character, as well as Jack’s disappointment that he isn’t the bully he seems to be. That he seems to be crushing on ultra-dweeb Heather—“Is that Heather from class’ head on the body of Wonder Woman?” he inquires after catching Dan sketching—makes him that much more interesting.
“Overachieving Virgins” is the weaker of the two episodes, though it does pull off what the other episodes couldn’t in giving an actual story to fellow teachers Stef, Mary, and Michelle. Unfortunately, it’s not a very good one.
Because teachers get paid shit, Stef is selling makeup on the side and pretty much expecting Mary and Michelle to buy in. Looking for a way out that doesn’t involve flat-out rejecting Stef, the duo rope in Durbin to put the kibosh on her operation, which only forces him to acknowledge how little everyone is paid. It’s standard sitcom fare, and doesn’t give much for this trio of very funny ladies (or Oswalt) to do. It’s pretty clear O’Brien and his team have no clue what to do with them just yet, which is a shame.
What “Overachieving Virgins” does well is add further dimension to Jack’s students, namely bespectacled dorks Marcus and Victor, who before this pretty much resonated as equals in terms of dweebery. Here, we learn that Marcus is not only student council president, but also kind of a monster when given power. Victor, on the other hand, is his disloyal sidekick, who ends up causing Marcus’ undoing by leading Jack to the revelation that his position was bought, not earned.
It all springs, amusingly enough, from Jack’s anger at not having access to “Cape Cod Salt and Vinegar Potato Chips” (a phrase Howerton relishes, despite the company having definitely purchased the plug), as well as the punishment he brings down on Marcus for using the phrase “hangry,” which, according to Colin, means being “so horny that you’re angry.” After Jack discovers the chips have been replaced by healthy food in all the vending machines, his attempts to appeal to the student council are stonewalled by Marcus. A feud ensues, and Marcus emerges from it in an existential crisis, having learned his parents secured the position for him in a move Jack hilariously describes as “pretty psychotic.” In the end, original winner Scotty Deeks (who Principal Durbin declares to be “awesome”) takes over the council, while Marcus is downgraded to the role of parliamentarian (“Beware, recalcitrant legislators!” Durbin warns).
Situationally, the episode isn’t all that successful, as there’s not a lot of humor to be found in the set pieces themselves. Rather, “Overachieving Virgins” culls a lot of its laughs from one-liners and randomness, whether it be Jack fumbling over what to call a homeless man’s dwelling (“His fort–his house–his tent–what do you want from me?!”) or the way he spits out the fruit leather that’s replaced his chips. The best line, however, goes to Anthony: “If I was president, I’d make all the dances at prom slow dances. If I’m paying 20 dollars, I wanna feel a body.” His delivery might be A.P. Bio’s funniest moment thus far.
- There’s still a static quality to A.P. Bio after these four episodes, the sense that we’re simply existing in this world rather than working towards something. That’s not necessarily a problem for now, and maybe the series will serendipitously stumble its way into whatever it is that becomes its super objective, but the quest to destroy Miles won’t cut it for long, especially when Miles himself is barely a part of the show.
- Durbin and the trio of Stef, Mary, and Michelle need some good stories and fast. Oswalt’s funny moment-to-moment, but there’s little of the actual comedian in the character, it seems. As of now, he’s pretty much nothing more than a bumbling administrator.
- Howerton has many talents, but his ability to transform tossed-off, seemingly improvised lines into hilarity is unparalleled. Examples: His delicate impression of the bookstore employee saying “you’ve scalded me”; “Come on, I need to see what mommy packed” when scouring their lunches; literally any time he says “chips.”
- “I shoplift magazines to feel alive. Getting caught the fun part.” Heather is, by a mile, my favorite student at this point.
- Devin’s “I abandoned you in the loo” was probably the funniest phrase I heard emerge from that cacophony of British accents.
- The autotune app as a voice disguiser was an especially fun bit of millennial humor.
- Did Jack call Marcus a “soulless taint”?
- What did you guys think? What made you laugh?