Photo: Ron Batzdorff/ NBC

A.P. Bio knows what you’re expecting: A bitter, caustic intellectual who, after being forced into a teaching job he finds beneath him, discovers a newfound passion and a fresh sense of optimism thanks to the wide-eyed wonder of his students. It’s to creator Mike O’Brien’s benefit, then, that the pilot not only demolishes those tropes, but acknowledges its own subversion via an opening monologue that establishes:

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1) The protagonist: Jack Griffin, an “award-winning philosophy scholar.”

2) The setting: A high school in Toledo, where Jack is living in his “dead mom’s apartment.”

3) The setup: Jack, for reasons he “won’t go into,” has a “free year” and is “killing a little bit of time” by teaching Advanced Placement Biology.

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4) The plot: Or, seemingly, lack thereof. “This won’t be one of those things where, over the course of a year, I secretly teach it to you,” Jack clarifies. “This also won’t be one of those things where I end up learning more from you than you do for me.”

5) The goal: “I’m going to spend the majority of my time mentally breaking my nemesis with the ultimate goal of taking his job as the head of Stanford philosophy,” he cleanly lays out. “And then I’m going to have sex with as many women as I possibly can throughout the state of California.”

What usually takes an entire episode to establish is here laid out, in very self-aware fashion, before the opening credits. This show, it asserts, is not like the others. This expediency, coupled with that smirking self-awareness and a healthy respect for the audience, constitutes everything that’s clicking with A.P. Bio’s pilot episode, which is brisk, funny, and reliably surprising without ever really telling much of a story.

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What we get instead are scraps of narrative: Jack goes on a date with his high school ex (who he plans to “bang as hard as I can”); his bad behavior inspires a student to act out; Jack helps that same student out with a bully (sorta); he manipulates “laid back” Principal Durbin (Patton Oswalt); and he tasks his biology students with “catfishing” Miles on Facebook. There’s no lasting consequence to any of these stories, nor is there the sense that anything at all has really been accomplished. It’s as if by laying out the show’s overarching narrative in the beginning, the show is absolving itself of committing to any narrative structure.

Photo: Ron Batzdorff/ NBC

This isn’t a complaint, necessarily. Not yet, at least. Because A.P. Bio, more than most sitcoms, already seems to have a firm grasp on what makes it funny. The foul, colorful absurdity of O’Brien, the weirdo behind SNL’s Ass Dan and that “Smash Mouth in the closet” bit, makes for a fine pairing with Glenn Howerton, whose Jack is only a few steps removed from the blunt cruelty he honed as Dennis across 12 seasons of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Howerton’s mania is dialed down here (well, slightly; he still threatens a guy with a crowbar at one point), but his acid tongue, sneering superiority, and general inappropriateness remains a delight.

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If there’s one sequence that best marries O’Brien and Howerton’s comic sensibilities, it’s when the students stage a surprise “rap” as a means of convincing Jack to actually teach them something. The scene itself, which serves as a subversion of Dangerous Minds-type tropes, is pure O’Brien, but it’s Howerton’s straight-faced dressing down of the kids that truly elevates the joke. “Don’t ever surprise me with a rap,” he scolds. “Don’t ever rap about learning.” Later, after discovering a saxophone player hiding in the closet, he explains as if in mid-lecture that “saxophones do not belong in rap music.” What a hilarious, absurd takeaway from such a discovery.

The scene also points to a compelling question: How do these kids actually feel about Jack? With the rap, they seem to be urging him to make an effort to teach them. Yet, later, when he has conjure up “catfishing” scenarios for Miles, they seem to relish the opportunity to engage in inappropriate, non-Bio related behavior. So, are they on his side? Or no? If the kids want him to teach, that serves as yet another clever subversion, this time of the fictional teacher’s timeworn effort to make students care about learning. Turn that around and you’ve got a unique conflict. There’s fruit there, should O’Brien choose to pursue it.

And the show could use more conflict. We know Jack wants to get a bigger, better teaching job while also smiting his rival and getting laid, but those are goals that, in many ways, exist independently of all the characters at the school. As a pilot, the likes of which exist to bring us into a world, all of that is fine. But humor alone won’t be able to sustain a series that doesn’t embrace its ensemble.

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Stray observations

  • God willing, I’ll be with you for the entirety of A.P. Bio’s first season, so do comment, question, and engage. As a longtime Sunny (and Howerton) fan, I’m very excited about this series and would not mind whatsoever if a portion of the comments is devoted to Dennis quotes.
  • I’m not familiar enough with high school academia, but a fired Harvard philosophy professor can’t just waltz into a school and begin teaching a subject in which they have no experience, correct? You’d think he’d be teaching community college or something. While A.P. Bio’s pilot has proven itself blessedly allergic to exposition, some background as to how Jack got the gig would be much appreciated.
  • Also, what, does he only teach the one class?
  • I do love that the only reason we’re given for why Jack got fired from Harvard was because he got into a fight with an unnamed “old person.” I honestly wouldn’t be mad if we found out no other details.
  • I didn’t get a chance to mention them above, as, well, they didn’t really do much, but I’m looking forward to more from the trio of Michelle (Jean Villepique), Stef (Lyric Lewis), and Mary (Mary Sohn), all of whom made the most of their minimal screen time. The nonchalance with which Michelle says her husband sends her “butt selfies” makes me very, very excited to learn more about this marriage.
  • Speaking of nonchalance: Jack casually confirming to Durbin that, yes, there is a raccoon on the second floor of his house was a fine moment of standalone absurdity.
  • A very Dennis line: “As I mentioned, I’ve been trying to mentally break my nemesis, Miles Leonard. He currently has the job that is rightfully mine and I want it back. He seems to be winning at the moment, but by the time we’re done with him he’ll be in a looney bin begging for death.”
  • Obviously, there’s plenty of comparisons to be made to both Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals, but the tones of those shows and this one are pretty wildly different, as is Howerton’s style versus Danny McBride’s, so I probably won’t be going there too often.
  • “I will literally beat you up with my adult muscles.”

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