Glenn Howerton rose to fame playing one of the worst people on TV, a character that It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia has often (and not implausibly) suggested could be a serial killer. So it’s no stretch for the once (and future?) Dennis Reynolds to embody A.P. Bio’s Jack Griffin, a selfish, callow, callous figure whose slouchy-stylish uniform of cowl-neck cardigans and joggers indicates a recent personal crisis and dueling desires to appear both above it all and inordinately invested in what other people think of him. Thinking is Jack’s business, but by the time he comes literally crashing into NBC’s new single-camera sitcom A.P. Bio, the Harvard philosophy scholar has tumbled from his lofty perch and come to in his hometown of Toledo, Ohio, where a desperate public-school system has installed him as the Advanced Placement biology teacher at Whitlock High School.
The early episodes of A.P. Bio contain trace elements of other treacle-cutting TV comedies of recent vintage—Vice Principals, Community, Bad Teacher, Teachers, and, naturally, Always Sunny—but the series also emerges with a remarkably self-assured vision. Like Jack and the honors students he consistently and thoroughly refuses to teach, A.P. Bio is set apart by confidence: In the way it plows through classroom cliché, sticks each character with a signature look, and paints its Midwestern setting in rich jewel tones. The pilot episode—which aired earlier this month, followed by the online debut of episodes that will receive their broadcast debuts beginning this Sunday—finds Jack laying out all of the things he will and will not do in his time as a high-school educator, a statement of intent that creator Mike O’Brien and the writing staff hold true to, even as A.P. Bio’s focus expands from Howerton to encompass the stacked comic ensemble arranged around him.
Jack doesn’t bend, but A.P. Bio shows signs of flexibility as it progresses. A revenge plot against the anti-protagonist’s amiable academic rival recedes to the background, while storylines for his fellow faculty members come to the forefront. At times, A.P. Bio struggles to build a bridge between what’s happening in Jack’s classroom and the rest of Whitlock, but the performances in the B-plots are so uniformly strong, they practically justify these digressions all on their own. Playing a principal whose every gesture depicts the various ways he’s been beaten down by life, Patton Oswalt is the main attraction of the supporting cast, but don’t count out Jean Villepique, Mary Sohn, and Lyric Lewis as a teacher’s-lounge clique whose dabbling in hallway protests, multilevel marketing, and therapeutic crafting provide A.P. Bio with some of its most pointed commentary and funniest throwaway gags. Also be on the lookout for comedy ringers like Niecy Nash, Erinn Hayes, Paula Pell, and Mark Proksch, the first of whom strikes up some potentially fruitful friction with Oswalt.
But what of the kids whose very futures are jeopardized by Jack’s safe-for-network-primetime rakishness? A.P. Bio generally depicts them as just as savvy (if not more so) than the adults, minus the existential baggage. They’re not unwitting pawns in their reluctant teacher’s game, nor are they pushovers, as evidenced when the show temporarily flips its power dynamic, putting Jack at the mercy of needling student-council president Marcus (Nick Peine). Unlike so many TV pupils who came before them, the A.P. Bio kids want desperately to learn, and they’re not above using musty ploys like inspirational raps and fake injuries to get what they want—and A.P. Bio isn’t above cutting them off before any of these plans gets anywhere near success.
Which is not to say that the show revels in these opportunities: The world of A.P. Bio is cruel—the type that would produce an embarrassing, viral video of Jack punctuated by the gruffly (and absurdly) extreme sound effect “TENURE FAIL!”—but its comedy isn’t. It’s here that A.P. Bio’s approach to the “no hugging, no learning” school of sitcoms will be most challenged, as the students’ lives keep intruding on Jack’s (and vice versa), yielding frank discussions that Jack would never in his life call “heart-to-heart”s. (The best A.P. Bio joke that neither O’Brien nor the writing staff came up with: Promos for the show airing at the same time as those for Rise, the Jason Katims-backed drama that combines elements of the 21st century’s preeminent sources of inspirational high-school storytelling, Glee and Friday Night Lights.) Despite statements to the contrary, Jack just might wind up teaching these kids something: Even the smartest guy in the room isn’t immune to failure.