It’s hard to imagine the audience that finds “A.P. Bio” funny. The sitcom, which starts when petulant crank Jack Griffin (Glenn Howerton) starts teaching Advanced Placement Biology to a class of winning nerds in Toledo, Ohio, presents a cheerful interpretation of a scenario that is rooted in nightmare for the parents, teachers, and former students in the audience: A teacher with total contempt for his students, the school he works at, and the subject he’s supposed to teach somehow locks down his position and draws a paycheck while making the students research how to take down his nemesis (an upbeat Stanford philosopher named Miles).
It’s a premise rooted in contempt for practically every constituency involved — teachers, school administrators, students, parents, philosophers, people who live in Ohio, and Harvard grads (well, who cares about the Harvard grads). It’s hard to imagine Jack would get a high school science job with the dubious qualification of a Harvard philosophy degree, no matter how badly the school’s principal (Patton Oswalt) wants Jack to be his friend. It’s harder still to imagine green educator Jack maintaining class control over a room of teenagers long enough to get them to listen to his dumb schemes. And it is frankly impossible to imagine a class of budding healthcare administrators putting up with more than 30 seconds of Jack’s grandstanding before calling every parent and school official in the district. But more importantly, “A.P. Bio” is just staggeringly unfunny, a clunky mess of a sitcom that has no idea how to innovate beyond its setup — nor any sense of what about its material is actually comedic.
It’s a pity. The most effective element of “A.P. Bio” is how thoroughly it squanders the appeal of the otherwise reliable Glenn Howerton, best known for his many seasons in FXX’s “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” Howerton is exceptional at playing a grotesquely selfish monster, as his character in that show has made abundantly clear. But “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” is acutely aware that its lead characters are the butts of every joke. “A.P. Bio,” by comparison, encourages the audience to enjoy Jack’s merciless disregard for the students, in what feels like a sanitized perversion of the Stanford Prison Experiment. In an early punishment, a student is relegated to the back of the room — specifically, to sit under a leak, with his back to the chalkboard. The students are asked to audition for roles in Jack’s attempts to humiliate Miles (Tom Bennett), which turns into each student reading aloud what they would message Miles if they were to attempt to seduce him. Later, in a midseason episode, Jack forces all the students to throw their expensive (and taxpayer-funded?) textbooks out the window; when they resurface, a few episodes later, they are water-damaged and dirty, packed into a trash bag with mulch and dead leaves. Hilarious, right? Who needs future doctors, when you’ve got all this comedy?
There are elements of “A.P. Bio” that work, but they are all outside of Jack’s dynamic with his students. The show is too cynical to really let him be affected by his students, but it’s also too nice to let the students rise up against him. But while that hostage situation rages on, other quadrants of the show find a nice rhythm. Principal Durbin and the trio of teachers played by Mary Sohn, Lyric Lewis, and Jean Villepique provide sorely needed adult counterpoints to Jack, and when the students are left to their own devices, they serve up nimble comedy. Jack does soften a bit by midseason, but “A.P. Bio” is much lighter on season-long arcs than its dismal premise suggests. Even at the rare moments where Jack appears to have learned something, he appears to immediately forget it in the next episode. And if a show where Jack learned something would have been a better version of “A.P. Bio,” one where the students band together to dispose of him would have been superior to both.
It’s unfortunate because there is clearly talent here, especially in the deep bench of students and Oswalt’s pathetic-funny performance. Every now and again “A.P. Bio” lands a punch line, and that experience makes the intervening long minutes especially bizarre. But the show is fundamentally empty in a way that is extremely disappointing — as if, perhaps, several comedy writers constructed an environment and a power dynamic that maximized the delivery of material, without any consideration of what people are really like in the world. Each caricatured student is another punch-line persona; each elaborate scheme is another stagey bit. You see? It’s comedy.