“This won’t be one of those things where I secretly teach [biology] to you. This also won’t be one of those things where I end up learning more from you than you do from me.”
The new NBC comedy series A.P. Bio debuted a pilot/sneak preview episode “Pilot: Catfish” starring Glenn Howerton (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) as a disgraced Harvard philosophy scholar named Jack Griffin who begins teaching at Whitlock High School back in his hometown of Toledo, Ohio, while on sabbatical for an embarrassing incident. Patton Oswalt (Ratatouille) co-stars as Principal Durbin while Tom Bennett plays Miles, Jack’s nemesis because he’s now in the position Jack coveted. This setup plants the revenge subplot where Jack uses others to reach his ultimate goal of vilifying and destroying Miles.
This single camera sitcom was created and written by Mike O’Brien (Saturday Night Live) while Seth Meyers and Lorne Michaels serve as executive producers. It is a highly relatable format since, as my brother says, everyone can relate to the high school environment. This show makes audiences uncomfortable, but there is nothing really shocking here – just a largely accurate commentary on our current social state.
It’s great to see the talented Oswalt get a large role as Durbin, who finds himself in a uniquely symbiotic relationship with Jack who is available at a bargain and brings some Ivy League prestige to the school yet creates havoc and even anarchy within the school system as spouts and enacts his own nonconforming methods.
Jack enters his classroom in non-formal wardrobe (e.g. a cardigan/sweat pants combo) then usually whips something into the waste can (usually a half-eaten apple). Respect is trashed too as Jack doesn’t give it or really want it from anyone at this school, but still expects his students to obey his rules and not squeal on him.
Several of the well varied student characters are played by seasoned young actors including Tucker Albrizzi (TV’s The Big Bang Theory) as a red-haired saxophonist named Colin, Nick Peine as student council student Marcus, and Allisyn Ashley Arm as introvert Heather.
The show also showcases rising stars Aparna Brielle as Sarika Sarkar (yes, she’s asked to repeat the name) and Jacob McCarthy who gets the most screen time as troubled loner Devin. Newcomer Charlie McCrackin also impresses as Coach Novak.
Lyric Lewis, Mary Sohn, and Jean Villepique play Jack’s colleagues Stef, Mary, and Michelle. This trio is not attracted to him and there is no love interest potential yet, but plenty of talk and references about love and sex overall. They like Jack’s attitude, which minimizes any whistleblowing that might lead to Jack’s potential firing that he’ll likely bring upon himself with his brazen attitudes and actions.
A.P. Bio even schools viewers by taking the time to explain A.P. “advanced placement biology,” but then wisely skips Jack’s most self-destructive behavior so his possible redemption and some positive aspects can remain intact.
This well-framed comedy uses the blackboard for some funny and well-drawn background gags throughout Jack’s classroom dialogue as well as Jack’s current digs (his recently deceased mom’s apartment) for other staged situations like a principal-student visit when Jack’s negative influence inspires similar behavior.
Director Osmany “Oz” Rodriguez works well with colorful background and lighting to establish an original look thought one lighting snafu at Jack’s apartment door distracts with some mislighting that makes a hand in a cast intentionally appear blue then really does not factor into the sequence at all.
The portrayal of the Toledo, Ohio, setting could use more authentic touches. For example, using “The New Southwyck Mall” in the exterior sign lettering instead of “Toledo Mall” would have been a nice inside joke.
As Jack’s exploits continue in this establishing episode, the audience learns how his revenge reeks poison into his already declining life. Obviously, audiences don’t really know this guy well yet, but most action here isn’t very positive or redeeming.
By the end, the show hints at vigilante justice or inventive new systems that lets students work issues out themselves. As a philosophy major, it’s not a stretch when Jack manipulates and even enjoys watching certain social situations play themselves out. He pushes the limits of this universe as viewers are invited to jettison real world headlines centering on school tragedies.
Based on this initial episode, A.P. Bio will make it to an early end to a real school year (**1/2 out of four stars). Will audiences want to peel away Jack’s layers and redeem the self-centered Jack or just buy into the bad behavior and escape into his sentiment-free journey? Only time will tell when this series continues on March 1 in a desirable Thursday night slot. This episode and two more (“Teacher Jail” and “Burning Miles”) are currently available online at https://www.nbc.com/ap-bio.