Photo: Vivian Zink (NBC)

Can we all agree on how strange it was to see Glenn Howerton act noble?

“Dating Toledoans” might be the most traditional episode of A.P. Bio to date, in that juggled clear A, B, C plotlines that each operated on a fairly straightforward 3-act structure that left each character enlightened or bettered in some way. It made for a less frustrating watch than some of the previous episodes, but it also, for the first time, made me wonder whether Howerton will be able to pull this off.

That’s not a critique of Howerton’s performance, mind you. The guy is, to me, one of the funniest actors working in television today. His work on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is, forgive my hyperbole, kind of revelatory. As Dennis, he not only subverted (nay, obliterated) the strictures around how an actor of his physical type operates in a half-hour comedy, but also introduced new quirks and modes of cruelty throughout the show’s 12 seasons that consistently kept us on our toes. He can also deliver an insult in ways that somehow feel as vindictive as they do dismissive. It’s a talent.

Glenn Howerton
Photo: Vivian Zink (NBC)

As the bitter, egotistical Jack, Howerton thrives. And, until now, that’s pretty much the mode in which he’s existed. His flashes of genuine humanity have been leavened by a healthy dose of insensitivity. Here, though, when he defends Stef, Mary, and Michelle against the acid-tongued Chloe, calling them his “friends” and bailing on this attractive woman to go do Pucker shots with his colleagues, it felt narratively satisfying but also wildly inconsistent. Jack clearly enjoys the ladies’ company—he has since the first episode—but the show hasn’t earned that level of devotion from a guy who’s still primarily defined by his unsavory qualities. Also, he was taking great joy in trashing both Toledo and the denizens of the bar with Chloe moments earlier. Sure, he doesn’t know them like he knows Stef, Mary, and Michelle, but the moment wasn’t framed as Jack recognizing his own hypocrisy so much as it was him offering up a firm defense of people and surroundings he considers beneath him. It was a show of emotional growth from Jack that felt like the work of a sitcom writer in need of an ending rather than a true evolution of character.

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Are we here to see Jack’s heart grow three sizes? For him to learn that maybe Toledo’s not so bad, after all? Maybe; the show needs some kind of arc, after all. It’s just strange seeing Howerton in that role, what with the guy having built his brand atop a “no hugging, no learning” ethos. It’s not like Howerton can’t sell the humanity, it’s just that warmth isn’t a trait for which he’s particularly known. I’ll be curious to see how he, as a performer, continues to navigate that space.

All that said, I quite enjoyed the structure of tonight’s episode, if only for its clean, well-balanced structure. This is the first episode that found a good, logical use for the likes Stef, Mary, and Michelle, who do their best to integrate Jack into the local dating scene after he finds taking a bus to New York City for dates unsustainable. Just getting them out of the teacher’s lounge and into the local watering hole helped their natural chemistry blossom in lovely ways, with their goodnatured banter serving as a light, affable foil to Jack’s curmudgeonly nature. That they represent all that’s sweet, humble, and humanistic about Toledo helps clarify their roles in a series that, in this episode at least, is as much about geographical superiority as it is intellectual egoism. Toledo’s becoming as important to A.P. Bio as Scranton was to The Office. More of this, please, and more of Stef calling relationships “situationships.”

Paula Pell
Photo: Vivian Zink (NBC)

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Meanwhile, Principal Durbin gets insecure when Helen ends up being a natural at doling out the morning announcements. Though he’s annoyed at what he calls her “dumb, stupid, dumb jokes,” Helen’s wackiness inspires him to spice up his own approach, which pretty much means cracking worse versions of the jokes she told and placing a ripped photo of Snoop Dogg in front of his face. It’s funny, giving Durbin some nice moments of awkward fluster and Helen a chance to dish out more of her “cool grandma” schtick, but the resolution is fairly rote and noncommittal, with the duo unwittingly broadcasting their climactic confrontation to the students.

In the classroom, the students squabble over crushes and relationships, and it’s nice to see them reveal the non-intellectual sides of their characters. Heather can’t be the only horny one in there, after all (though I do love how invested she is in whether or not Jack gets laid). Also love Anthony breaking it all down for Jack, especially when he notes that “Devin is fluid so he might actually like me.

Overall, “Dating Toledoans” wasn’t the funniest episode. It lacked a lot of O’Brien’s warped touches and felt more concerned in propelling plotlines than landing jokes. But, as such, the show’s course is becoming clearer, as is its ability to balance the ensemble. Because embracing that ensemble might be the key to keeping this thing chugging.

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Stray observations

  • Funniest moment of the episode: Durbin thinking his Snoop Dogg impression was so funny that he should bring it back in subsequent announcements. “I love gin/ Driving in my car/ gin juice,” he sings, very pleased with himself.
  • Also hilarious was Jack’s response to Marcus speaking up in class: “Oh, look, it’s you. Wonderful. Good to see you, Marcus.” Glad to see he’s holding onto his irrational annoyance at the kid. 
  • Jack never feels more like Dennis than when he talks about sex. After revealing his upcoming date to the students, he informs them with a hilarious matter-of-factness that this means “it’s bang time.”
  • I love that Jack’s vision of Toledo women is that they “believe in angels” and “eat pie on the toilet.”
  • Coach Novak remains a delight. “Oh, she’s really busting my chops!” he bellows about Helen’s impersonation of him.
  • “So. ISIS. Don’t those guys drive you nuts? For me, it’s like, ‘God, stop...you make me sick.’”

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