You can’t fake being bad, whether it’s in person or on TV. To use a totally random and obviously unrelated example, think of a teacher. Kids can smell a faker in an instant, so if a teacher walked into a classroom pretending not to care all while hiding a secret educational agenda, it would never work. The same goes for a TV show: If a series created a character who was a bad teacher because he or she was incompetent, that’s less interesting than a character who willfully sets a bad example for the kiddos.
They’re not bad — not in a way anyone will respond to, anyway. But even if they go the purposefully bad route, audiences can tell when writers are reaching to be provocative. They need to believe in the bad behavior, and they need to believe the bad behavior has a purpose. Otherwise, it rings false.
So when Glenn Howerton’s ostracized Harvard philosophy professor walks into his A.P. Bio class for the first time, tossing a crowbar on the desk and telling his class to shut up (twice), it’s pretty clear he’s not faking it. He’s not deluded, incompetent, or unhinged; he’s confident and uncaring — two traits that exude “cool” and, in this case, also prove to be properly motivated. Jack Griffin (Howerton) has a plan, and he believes he can execute it without ever stooping low enough to actually teach his students. His disdain for such trivial matters makes things all the more interesting, and it adds conflict to a classroom where the kids actually want to learn. (College, after all, doesn’t come easy these days.)
More importantly, it makes for a compelling central figure and a comedy with a lot of deep, well-earned laughs. “A.P. Bio” could’ve been a disaster if it was simply a weekly chronicle of how outlandish Jack can behave. Instead, it’s about how he gets away with a very specific mission — to humiliate his nemesis and get his old university job back — and why each of his students goes along with it as much as they do. He’s not trying to be as big of an asshole as he can; he just wants what he wants and doesn’t care how he gets it.
On this basis alone, “A.P. Bio” is an innately watchable sitcom, but creator Mike O’Brien (“Saturday Night Live”) has an eye toward longevity as he builds intriguing details into Jack’s life, meant for later exploration, and utilizes a strong supporting cast who play people with their own bits of bad in them. A trio of teachers — Stef (Lyric Lewis), Mary (Mary Sohn), and Michelle (Jean Villepique) — don’t tattle on Jack when his obvious ill intentions quickly become clear; they simply don’t take any of his shit and sass the hell out of him whenever he deserves it. His kids aren’t perfect either. One or two pick fights with Jack — usually for good reason — but they’ve got plenty to learn in this brave new world, and the show enjoys exploring that.
Principal Durbin, played by Patton Oswalt, is the sole shining beacon for good. Ironically referred to as Dirty Durbin by his less-wholesome colleagues, Durbin isn’t the impediment to his teachers’ goals so much as a reminder they should do the right thing. He wants everyone to be happy, even if he recognizes some of them are motivated by the wrong factors. Oswalt plays it to maximum potential; he’s not ignorant of Jack’s actions. He knows he needs him, and plays his boss card as hard as he can without scaring off a teacher who looks too-good-to-be-true on paper. (And that’s pretty important for a struggling public high school.) The stand-up comic has expectedly note-perfect timing and an endearing spirit made more so by Howerton’s wicked disobedience, and there’s a lot of potential in Durbin’s story still to be discovered.
The same can be said for the show, which is an accomplishment after four episodes, given the series’ core joke is based on a simple juxtaposition: Teachers are meant to be role models for their students, Jack is the opposite, and “A.P. Bio” sticks to its early and explicit promise of not breaking from its bad roots. Jack tells his class this isn’t going to be one of those situations where he learns more from them than they do from him, nor will he see the error of his ways and start teaching properly. Perhaps the latter will develop down the line and the former will continue to occur (thankfully sans any undue acknowledgment), but for now the NBC sitcom is earnestly uncaring and delightfully unscrupulous. Jack is a legitimately bad teacher, but Howerton makes him a great source of chaotic comedy.
“A.P. Bio” premieres Thursday, February 1 at 9:30 p.m. and will return for the rest of Season 1 on March 1, after the Olympics.