Classroom comedies are always with us. From "Our Miss Brooks" back in the Golden Age, to "Welcome Back, Kotter" in the 1970s, to current series "Teachers" on TV Land and "Those Who Can't" on TruTV, the business of imparting knowledge, and keeping kids off the street, has always been good for a laugh.
They don't always fly: "Bad Teacher" lasted three episodes on CBS in 2014, "Mr. Robinson" just twice that a year later. But that won't stop them coming.
Created by Mike O'Brien, and produced by Seth Meyers and “Late Night” producer Mike Shoemaker, the new "A.P. Bio" stars Glenn Howerton of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia." He plays a self-described "award-winning philosophy scholar" who finds himself living in Toledo in his "dead mother's apartment,” sometimes wearing her bathrobe, and teaching advance placement biology at a local high school. It also marks the return of the Lorne Michaels/"Saturday Night Live" alumni comedy machine to NBC's Thursday lineup.
The series — which has the dark whimsy of that brand — gets a preview airing Thursday before returning for an “official” premiere March 1, on the far side of the Winter Olympics. That break is unfortunate, as what can feel a little tired in the pilot — this is not exactly new ground — is freshened by later episodes (I have seen four) and the arrival of great guest players, including Paula Pell as the school nurse, Niecy Nash as a union representative and Mark Proksch as a teacher suspended for tickling.
"My name's Jack Griffin, and I don't want to be here," Howerton's character tells his expectant class, a collection of self-selecting nerds, weirdos and overachievers. Indeed, there's no way to account for his hiring — having taught at Harvard is not as much of a recommendation as is suggested here — especially given that Jack is internet famous for a video titled "Old dude handles slightly less old dude" that ends with the declaration "Tenure Fail!" But we accept the premise in order to proceed.
That the show lives in a world in which there are sentimental movies and television shows about students and teachers is made clear early on.
"This won't be one of those things where over the course of a year I secretly teach it to you," Jack tells his class, having declared his intention to teach no biology, or anything else. "This also won't be one of those things where I end up learning more from you than you do from me."
It's a Bill Murray part, basically, of the sort Bill Murray has outgrown. But Howerton — abrasive at first, tolerably abrasive later on — finds some original things to do with it.
What keeps Jack tolerable is that he's a loser. He has no power beyond being able to waste the time of his students — “This is going to be your opportunity to take a nap, and if you're not tired, pop an Advil P.M. and you will be out, trust me” — and manipulate Patton Oswalt's exasperated, ineffectual Principal Durbin. (Jack: "You're not the boss of me." Durbin: "That's literally my job description.") He fumes helplessly over the success of a rival (Tom Bennett) who occupies the job he has in mind for himself plus and has a five-star review on Amazon, a genius grant and Lisa Loeb for a girlfriend.
As a combination of vocal bitterness and reluctant growth, he is somewhat analogous to Joel McHale's Jeff Winger in "Community," another comedy with an educational background. Jack is selfish, short-sighted and driven by impulse, with almost no sense of responsibility. (“Sunny in Philadelphia” fans may nod in recognition.) But in spite of his declaration to do no teaching, he will make common cause with a student, sometimes after trying to destroy them.
In the real world, Jack would neither have nor be able to keep this job — though, looking back, I did have some teachers whose continued employment was similarly mysterious. And some will find it tonally odd, or flat-out distasteful that a teacher would insult his students’ intelligence — by literally insulting their intelligence — or talk so much to them about his sex life, which is to say, his failure to have sex; he plans to “bang” his old high school girlfriend, he tells just about everyone. But he is so clearly pathetic that this comes off less creepy than it might.
Still, a joke like the following one does seem off in the context of a high school comedy (though of course, not all of the young actors are minors, if any are).
"Mr. Griffin, have you ever dated a single mom?"
"Yeah, one time, but she had a C section, so it was all good."
Another student does comment, "You're a bad person,” just to keep that straight.
The show is shot in creamy pastel colors, like the layout in a high-end lifestyle magazine, an unusual choice for this sort of thing. (Title typography reinforces the impression.) It gives the kids, many of whom have been cast for awkwardness or oddness, and who are all excellent, a kind of portrait-studio glamour.
Also on board are a trio of female teachers (Lyric Lewis, Mary Sohn and Jean Villepique), who will eventually get their own business to conduct, apart from what's up with Jack. All sit so easily within their characters that it’s easy to picture “A.P. Bio” going on a while. They’ve built a world already.
When: 9:30 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-14-DL (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)