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‘A.P. Bio’: In Defense of a Smart, Surprising Freshman Run That Deserves to See Its Sophomore Year

An insolent white guy abusing his power may not seem like a tale tailor-made for today, but it's just one way "A.P. Bio" plays against expectations to earn that "A."

A.P. BIO -- "Drenching Dallas" Episode 113 -- Pictured: Glenn Howerton as Jack Griffin -- (Photo by Colleen Hayes/NBC)

Glenn Howerton in “A.P. Bio”

Colleen Hayes/NBC

[Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers for “A.P. Bio” Season 1 up to, but not including, the finale.]

There’s a scene in “A.P. Bio,” NBC’s delightful freshman sitcom, that’s as pivotal to the series’ improbable success as it is easy to overlook entirely. In Episode 11, “Eight Pigs and a Rat,” Jack (Glenn Howerton) is forced into doing the one thing he’s refused to do: teach biology. With the principal and superintendent visiting his class and a student who wants him fired pressing Jack to perform, the former Harvard professor has to lead a pig dissection in front of the entire class. The problem? Jack taught philosophy in the Ivy Leagues, not bio.

At first, he brings up Heather (Allisyn Ashley Arm), who works at a butcher shop with her dad, as a student assistant to do the job for him. But when Sarika (Aparna Brielle) tries to expose Jack by asking for an explanation in “standard scientific biological terms,” he hesitates. He’s in trouble — or so it seems. With a worried stutter, Jack grabs an organ from the pig’s open cavity and… starts teaching biology. He knows all the terms, makes them easy to understand for the class, and flaunts his insights by walking through the desks with the adrenal gland in hand.

Pausing briefly next to Sarika, Jack whispers: “I never said I didn’t know biology. I’m just never going to teach it to you.”

His fearful stalling was just a self-satisfying ruse, his ineptitude a facade of convenience — and what a kicker. The line isn’t even the climax of the episode, and yet it gives us further insight into Jack’s character, helps us understand his motivations, and delivers one helluva punchline to the scene. It’s the kind of moment other series would’ve built toward all season, but “A.P. Bio” recognizes as just one more weapon in a wide arsenal of very funny options; as though the writers realized, “Oh yeah, we never said he couldn’t teach biology.” The show doesn’t need to rely on drawing out a joke like that when it has so many strong elements to put to good use.

A.P. BIO -- "Drenching Dallas" Episode 113 -- Pictured: Patton Oswalt as Principal Durbin -- (Photo by Colleen Hayes/NBC)

Michael Patrick O’Brien didn’t design the season around Jack getting caught, so viewers weren’t waiting to see him exposed as an insufficient substitute. Watching Jack worm his way around teaching biology for 13 episodes would’ve been a taxing slog, but learning he can teach biology when he’s unexpectedly pushed into it proves to be a wonderful surprise. He’s not an incompetent teacher; he’s a bad teacher. And there’s a difference.

That difference is key to appreciating a series that’s not exactly set up for the moment. In the real world, women are fighting back against men who abuse their power, and children need responsible leaders more than ever. “A.P. Bio” presents a purposefully neglectful teacher taking advantage of his status to execute a personal vendetta that’s assisted by unwilling students. “Black-ish” this is not.

But that’s OK! Comedies don’t have to take on socio-political issues or mix in a deeply dramatic episode every third week, just like they don’t have to reinvent the wheel or maintain a perfect P.C. image. Some of NBC’s best comedies over the years have been built around a simple premise disconnected from the time they were made. That’s why “Cheers,” “Friends,” and “Seinfeld” still thrive in reruns — they’re timeless, and “A.P. Bio,” with its school setting and familiar archetypes, offers the same classic potential.

Jack isn’t meant to be a mentor for the kids on screen or a role model for anyone off of it. He’s meant to be a compelling central figure who’s also very, very funny. That’s exactly who he is, embodied with charm and pizzazz by the perfectly cast Glenn Howerton. The fact that we’ve made it through an entire season of “A.P. Bio” without addressing Jack’s repressed, complicated feelings about his deceased mother — he wears her bathrobe around the house, for pete’s sake — should tell you how much is left to mine from this character.

A.P. BIO -- "Eight Pigs and a Rat" Episode 111 -- Pictured: (l-r) Spencer Moore II as Dan Decker, Allisyn Ashley Arm as Heather -- (Photo by: Vivian Zink/NBC)

That being said, the show doesn’t rest everything on its star’s shoulders. This is an ensemble comedy with exciting players in every part. Patton Oswalt is an affable principal who earnestly wants what’s best for his students and staff, and yet remains blind to his favorite teacher’s many flaws. Principal Durbin’s undying love for Jack is a fun way to reverse expectations — typically, a bad teacher and a good principal would be enemies, not best buds — and it shows off the strong comedic chemistry between Oswalt and Howerton. Durbin more than holds his own when brought into the spotlight (like when he moved in with Jack), but he’s just as valuable adding color to scenes he’s only supporting (like his enthusiastic emceeing of the “Congo”-themed dance in the finale).

Jack’s fellow teachers are well-utilized, too. Be it Mary (Mary Sohn) and her provocative artwork, Stef (Lyric Lewis) and her persistent makeup con game, or Michelle (Jean Villepique) and her wild card ways, the trio has an engaging rhythm that sparks smaller scenes to life. Throw in Charlie McCrackin’s cartoonish Coach Novak and Paula Pell’s obsessively kind principal’s assistant, and “A.P. Bio” has plenty of supporting players to rely on — not to mention the kids.

A make or break aspect from the start, each youth casting choice is well-calculated not only from a diversity standpoint, but from the oh-so-crucial factor of, “Oh my God these children aren’t annoying!” Perhaps in the biggest surprise of all, each and every one of them is great. Give me more of Nick Peine’s nerd-on-the-rise Marcus, Brielle’s bitter, book-focused Sarika, and way more of Eddie Leavy’s judge-y Anthony. (Oh, and feel free to let Howerton do more impressions of all of them, as he did in the penultimate episode of Season 1, “Walleye.”)

Without spoiling anything, the finale sets up a long life for the series. After 13 episodes, it’s more than evident that the basic premise of “A.P. Bio” is sustainable, and it deserves a shot at Season 2. When there’s this much to work with, there’s no telling what new delights await in sophomore year.

“A.P. Bio” airs its Season 1 finale, “Drenching Dallas,” on Thursday, May 3 at 8 p.m. on NBC. Episodes are streaming on Hulu and NBC.com.

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