Film and TV

A.P. Bio and the Limits of Crossbreeding Cable Edge With Sitcom Schmaltz

Glenn Howerton plays Jack Griffin, a Harvard philosophy professor-turned-high-school biology teacher who reluctantly returns to his hometown of Toledo, Ohio, in A.P. Bio.
Vivian Zink/Courtesy of NBC Universal
Glenn Howerton plays Jack Griffin, a Harvard philosophy professor-turned-high-school biology teacher who reluctantly returns to his hometown of Toledo, Ohio, in A.P. Bio.
A.P. Bio airs Thursdays on NBC
The Mick airs Tuesdays on Fox

In NBC’s new sitcom A.P. Bio, Glenn Howerton of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia plays a Harvard philosophy professor-turned-high-school biology teacher who reluctantly returns to his hometown of Toledo, Ohio, after losing his dream job. The first episode, which aired in February, finds the ne’er-do-well crashing his car into the school’s sign in the parking lot before sauntering up to his classroom in a pair of sweatpants and sneakers. “My name is Jack Griffin,” he introduces himself to his young charges, “and I don't want to be here.”

If you’ve ever wondered what it might look like to crossbreed an edgy cable comedy with a jovial network sitcom, A.P. Bio, created by former SNL writer Mike O’Brien, suggests just that sort of Frankenfood. Caustic and a little pathetic, Howerton’s character lives in his late mother’s house, which is still equipped with frilly curtains and a stair lift. Jack is strikingly similar to Dennis Reynolds, Howerton’s role on Always Sunny, one of five friends who own a bar in Philly. (Always Sunny is returning to FXX in 2019, although it’s unclear if Howerton will still be on the show.)

But a dimly lit dive bar on a cable series is a far cry from the dutifully sunny classroom setting of A.P. Bio. If Always Sunny follows the dumb logic of its idiotic characters, A.P. Bio follows the dumb logic of network sitcoms, to middling results: Where the former makes a meal out of the gang’s bottomless appetite for debauchery, the latter is the kind of weak-sauce low-fat version of a favorite snack, corrupted in the attempt to balance its protagonist’s bad-boy license with a more familiar, nourishing mode of sitcom storytelling. It’s one thing to wring laughs from a merry band of alcoholics who spend their days cooking up drunken schemes in their scuzzy, sticky-floored dive; it’s quite another to spin comedy out of the concept of a selfish prick who’s responsible for a class of dozen kids five days a week.

In its first few episodes, A.P. Bio struggles to balance the salty and the sweet. It’s pretty clear, early on, that Jack will soon warm up to his students and coworkers, in particular three teachers played by Lyric Lewis, Mary Sohn and Jean Villepique, who congregate over Tupperware’d lunches in the staff room. It’s not long before Jack is teaching the kids syrupy lessons about bullying and passing on a potential hookup to hang with his new pals. Four episodes in and already, wouldn’t you know it, Jack is starting to like this place!

On the other hand, the show’s attempts to be brash and irreverent often come off as creepy, or worse, in exceptionally bad taste. In the pilot, Jack informs the kids that he is far too brilliant to be teaching high school biology, so he won’t. Instead, he enlists his students as reluctant foot soldiers in his war with Miles Leonard (Tom Bennett), the rival professor who got the job that Jack wanted, as the head of Stanford’s philosophy department. After he someday takes over Miles’ position, Jack explains to the class, his only other goal is to “have sex with as many women as I possibly can throughout the state of California.”

This setup might yield more laughs if it didn’t so heavily rely on the shock factor of a teacher speaking frankly to his students about sex. Jack asks his students to write an alluring message to Miles, which he’ll later send to his rival in an attempt to “catfish” him. An upcoming episode opens with the teacher scrawling his latest assignment on the chalkboard: “Who will Jack bang?” (Within minutes, a hot mom conveniently shows up.) In last week’s episode, Jack asks the kids for a “show of hands”: “You guys all masturbate, right?” Icky isn’t the right word for this; “sexual harassment” is closer.

A.P. Bio feels network-noted to death; it either goes too far or not far enough, and you can sense the tug of war between the writers’ desire to put a risque comedy on prime time and the network suits’ imperative to buffer the show’s rough edges.

Another network sitcom featuring Howerton’s Always Sunny co-star Kaitlin Olson manages to find the sweet spot: On The Mick, which premiered on Fox last year and is currently wrapping up its second season, Olson plays Mackenzie “Mickey” Murphy, a Rhode Island grifter who finds herself in charge of her wealthy sister’s three privileged children in Connecticut when her sister and brother-in-law are arrested for tax fraud. Both A.P. Bio and The Mick surround their surly protagonists with children that they don’t particularly want to care for; both Mickey and Jack find themselves obliged and, eventually, charmed enough to stick around.

The Mick, created by Always Sunny writers Dave and Josh Chernin, pulls off its wastrel shtick more winningly than A.P. Bio, partly because its fish-out-of-water story puts the scuzzy protagonist in a classy setting instead of centering on a guy who thinks he’s too good for Toledo. The writing on The Mick is better, but Olson also does more with it; maybe her gawky physical humor is easier to build a series around than Howerton’s holier-than-thou routine. Or maybe she’s just funnier. So far, A.P. Bio substitutes a kind of smug brattiness for the clever plotting and more fully developed characters of Always Sunny and The Mick — and those aren’t elements that necessitate a “TV-MA” rating.

The old sitcom koan dictates that nothing and no one radically changes over the course of a show’s run. That philosophy is the reason Always Sunny is set to become the longest-running live-action comedy in TV history. Each episode begins with a timestamp, usually indicating a weekday afternoon, when the gang is hanging around the bar avoiding doing their jobs. No matter how seriously Dennis, Dee (Olson), Charlie (Charlie Day), Mac (Rob McElhenney) and Frank (Danny DeVito) might commit themselves to doing the right thing at the beginning of an episode, by the end, it never works out, because they are who they are: bad people. That stance makes Always Sunny not only hilarious, but, I’d argue, morally responsible. Sure, you can “break bad,” but it won’t look pretty, the way a glossy sitcom set in an impossibly slick-looking public school does; it’ll look like a dive bar where your best friend is a one-eyed homeless guy who does PCP in the bathroom.

Even if A.P. Bio were more certain in its writing and more sharp in its performances, the comedy would likely still prove more queasy than funny. The idea that irresponsible grown-ups are hilarious works better in the context of a bunch of losers who run a bar than, say, a teacher running a classroom. Or maybe being bad just isn’t as funny as it used to be; maybe these days, the idea that the adults running the show are negligent and morally bankrupt sounds less like comedy than documentary.