This is a spoiler-free review of A.P. Bio’s episodes 1-5.
For a relatively simple network sitcom released in February, A.P. Bio feels like it has a lot riding on it. The show comes from Mike O’Brien, a former Saturday Night Live writer and occasional performer who seems like he’s been on the periphery of breaking out as a recognized comedy genius since the Reagan administration. SNL creator Lorne Michaels serves as an executive producer alongside former SNL head writer and current late night talk show sensation Seth Meyers. Both of those men are batting close to 1.000 and it would be a shame for anything to sully that average.
And then most importantly: the best actor on television,* Glenn Howerton, is making his network lead debut after portraying the hilariously charming and sociopathic Dennis Reynolds on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia for 12 seasons.
*You read that right.
Sunny is still around but will Howertown still be on it? Who knows. He and the rest of the cast have remained mum. It’s entirely likely that the future of an iconic character on a beloved sitcom going into its 13th year rests on the shoulders of whether A.P. Bio is a hit or not.
So yeah. On the long list of things in human existence that matter, A.P. Bio is undoubtedly pretty low. But in the realm of issues that millennial television critics care about, there may be no more important show than A.P. Bio right now.
A.P. Bio begins its run on March 1 but NBC has offered a sneak peak at the pilot on February 1. If you’re from Western Pennsylvania or a Bill Murray fan, you might notice that that happens to be the day before Groundhogs Day.
It’s a fitting scheduling choice on NBC’s part because after A.P. Bio premieres, Punxsutawney Glenn Howerton will poke his head out of his hole to check the social media impressions to see if he has a shadow or not. This will determine if there will be many more years of Dennis Reynolds on It’s Always Sunny.
Based on the first four episodes of A.P. Bio Season 1, you may as well kiss the D.E.N.N.I.S. system goodbye. A.P. Bio is an excellent show, and in a just world it will be a star-making moment for everyone involved.
Howerton stars as Jack Griffin, a disgraced ex-Harvard professor who is forced to move back home to Toledo and get a job at a high school, while plotting revenge against his enemies in academia.
He makes a grand entrance on his first day at Whitlock High School. He drives over a stone sign in the front, enters the A.P. Bio classroom, throws a crowbar on the desk, a half-eaten apple towards the trashcan and tells the kids to shut up.
Jack tells the stunned students his name, says he’s only here to recuperate while plotting revenge against his nemesis Miles Leonard, bang some local women, and get on his merry way to greener pastures.
“This won’t be one of those things where over the course of the year I will secretly be teaching you,” he tells the kids. “This also won’t be one of those things where you teach me. I know more than all of you combined. That would be ridiculous.”
The best part of A.P. Bio’s first four episodes is that it stays mostly true to Jack’s promise. He makes no effort whatsoever to teach the children. He in turn retains very few lessons from them. Of course, there are some moments that if you squint hard enough may look like lessons or personal growth but Jack for the most part remains the self-centered asshole he introduces himself as in the first minute of the show.
This is the type of role Howerton was born to play. Over twelve seasons of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the Juilliard-trained actor created a fascinating monster of sociopathy and self-centeredness the likes of which television has never seen.
His delving into the black soul of truly selfish, seemingly irredeemable people continues apace in A.P. Bio. Jack Griffin is a remarkable creation – a clear anti-social id with just enough baseline humanity to keep the show from becoming an actual horror movie in which a likely serial killer psychologically torments children.
It’s a balancing act that quite literally no one else in the medium can pull off. Howerton is A.P. Bio’s best asset and the fulcrum on which the entire show operates. That much is to be expected for those familiar with the actor’s work and the show’s concept. What’s unexpected and delightful is the excellent work the rest of the cast turns in.
Patton Oswalt is another known television quantity and he plays his usual archetype of “really pathetic guy” to absolute perfection here. As Principal Durbin, Oswalt is taken advantage of or humiliated by nearly every other character onscreen. Still, he brings an unexpected level of gravitas to the role, making it surprisingly plausible that he could actually rise to a role of authority in a Midwestern High School.
At first, the child actors’ performances don’t seem particularly impressive. In the Pilot each of the many students is portraying a different kind of high school stereotype: the academic overachiever (Sarika, played by Aparna Brielle), the perfectly hatable nerd (Marcus, played by Nick Peine), the sullen weirdo (Devin, played by Jacob McCarthy), and many, many more.
When the kids are given an opportunity to fill our their characters post-Pilot, however, the results are amazing. Each and every young actor fits into the show’s tone and cruel sense of humor perfectly. By episode four, they’ve fully adapted to having the kind of teacher who wants them to help him catfish his nemesis and are able to actively participate in all the madness.
The staff of Whitlock High is also uniformly excellent. Mary Sohn, Lyric Lewis, and Jean Villepique portray a trio of teachers named Mary, Stef, and Michelle and they act as a sort of an aloof theatrical chorus, observing and commenting on the events in Jack’s A.P. Bio class. They are all also in a hilariously toxic friendship in which Mary and Stef openly bully Michelle.
Paula Pell also turns up as school nurse Helen and spends episode two sucking up every possible brilliant joke onscreen like a fire does oxygen. Bless her.
If A.P. Bio has a drawback in the early going, it’s a slight lack of focus. There is a lot of effort put into getting Jack incorporated (and in most cases, creating) the madness at Whitlock High. That effort pays dividends, leading to funny episode concepts in which Jack ends up in “teacher jail,” picks a fight with the all-powerful student council, and is forced against his will to play the role of the father figure.
The only problem is that Jack’s revenge fantasy modus operandi isn’t fully realized four episodes in. Presumably the show will set up more encounters between Jack and his various enemies in the future (it doesn’t help that none of the objects of Jack’s hate live in Toledo and therefore he never shares a screen with Miles or anyone else from his previous life). Still, the show is funny enough and the cast is so charming that something as critically ominous-sounding as “lack of focus and purpose” ends up being only a minor quibble.
A.P. Bio brings a much-needed sense of anarchy to both the traditional network sitcom and the “shitty teacher makes good” trope in general. Whether terrestrial television viewers are ready for a dash of Dennis Reynolds in primetime remains to be seen. If nothing else, however, A.P. Bio will likely represent a big critical and cultural win for its creator and star.
And hopefully the kids of Whitlock High will be hanging out with the young Stranger Things crew on red carpets soon.