When you hear a premise like ‘disgraced Harvard philosophy professor uses the students at his new job teaching advanced biology in Toledo to get revenge on his academic rival,’ there can be a tendency to assume that it will make a great pilot episode, maybe even a good whole first season, but that it will peter out creatively pretty quickly.
The miracle of A.P. Bio, which premiered on NBC last week and has posted its first three episodes on-demand, is not that its first episode is funny, although it is. With talent like Glenn Howerton (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and Patton Oswalt in front of the camera, and longtime Saturday Night Live writer Mike O’Brien behind it, it would be weird if it wasn’t.
But A.P. Bio smartly downshifts in its second episode, putting the revenge plot on the back burner to focus on building out its comic roster and establishing the possibilities between the characters, to give the show long enough legs to (hopefully) last longer than a season.
As mentioned above, the show begins with Jack Griffin (Howerton) reporting for his first day of work teaching A.P. Biology and announces to the class that he has no intention of teaching them biology, but rather will enlist their aid in taking down his nemesis. If they keep their mouths shut, they get an A+. If they rat him out to the principal (Oswalt), they get an F. The kids, being academically and achievement- oriented, are desperate to get him to actually teach them biology, so there is a bit of cat and mouse going on.
The show smartly surrounds Howerton and Oswalt with great bit characters who, at least at the outset, have nothing to do with the revenge plot other than also working at the school, and it’s impressive how quickly the show pivots to an A-story/B-story/C-story structure using these characters, including a clique of mean-girl fellow teachers (Lyric Lewis, Mary Sohn, Jean Villepique); an inarticulate gym teacher (Charlie McCrackin); and a busybody assistant principal with school spirit to spare (longtime SNL and 30 Rock writer Paula Pell, who probably wrote the line “I’m gonna teach you what I know, starting with the glorious velveteen labyrinth that is the female reproductive system” herself), as well as guest appearances by Niecy Nash (Claws), as a Teacher’s Union representative with an ax to grind, and Taran Killam (SNL) in an amusing cameo as the Platonic ideal of a biology teacher.
The difference between a good comedy and a great one is in the small details, and this is where I get the feeling that A.P. Bio may be around for a while, as it is jam packed with little jokes in the margins, that it doesn’t bother to call out, like the way Jack charts out his revenge plans on the chalkboard, or the fact that he lives in his dead mother’s house, has not redecorated, wears her bathrobe around the house, and uses her shower chair, the cascade of little gags around the students’ rap-based effort to change Jack’s mind, or of course the casual call out to the ‘70s AM classic ‘Baker Street.’ I got a lot of laughs out of these first three episodes, and feel confident that the next three will be as good or better.
The first three episodes of A.P. Bio are available on-demand now on NBC; new episodes will resume Thursday, March 1.