It’s hard to tell a story about not liking something.
Dislike is, after all, an inherently passive trait, one that robs even the best-written characters of the all-important agency that makes stories happen. (Mostly, it leaves them with little more to do than just sort of sit around, grousing.) It’s something that A.P. Bio—which we’re dropping in on tonight in honor of its latest (and quite possibly last) season finale on NBC—has struggled with over its two years on the air. The show’s hero, Jack Griffin, dislikes a great many things; indeed, as the series made plain tonight, that dislike—of his co-workers; of the inherited house he refuses to alter from the state his dead mom left it to him in; of Toledo, Ohio, as a whole—is a fundamental part of his make-up. Give it up, admit that there are things about Toledo that he actually enjoys, and Jack’s dream of getting back to his old lifestyle as a Harvard academic superstar dies along with it.
It’s a deliberate piece of slow-burn character building, one that Glenn Howerton has handled ably over the show’s second season, which executed a shift from the series’ original premise (“Asshole teacher weaponizes high school students in petty revenge schemes against academic rival”) to something a bit softer, if no less strange. But it’s also a problem for the show’s dramatic structure, which has dealt with Jack’s hostility to his living situation in two basic ways. One is widening its scope, exploring the world of Whitlock High School and the weirdos who work there—something it did to strong effect in A.P. Bio’s best outing to date, “Wednesday Morning, 8 a.m.” The other is dialing in to the few things that Jack does like, which mostly boil down to revenge, and the implantation of the urge for revenge in others.
In fact, the sweetest moment in the show’s potential series finale, “Kinda Sorta”, doesn’t come when Jack finally breaks down and admits that he would miss love interest Lynette (Elizabeth Alderfer, a welcome addition to the show’s host of regulars this season) if he ever accomplished his dream and actually got the hell out of Ohio. It’s when the kids in his class—and most especially his personal nemesis, the permanently uptight Sarika—come to him at the hotel hot tub where he’s just suffered a rare attack of conscience, and ask him to help them execute one of the show’s beloved “missions” in order to get her file flagged for acceptance by a Harvard recruiter. Instead of leaping into action, Jack reminds his students that they now know enough about manipulation, lying, and deceit to handle this sort of thing by themselves. Give a man a fish and he eats for a day, as the saying goes. Teach a man to impersonate a bellhop as part of a convoluted scheme to defraud college admissions applications, and he’ll eat for life. (Or possibly end up starring on a long-running family drama on the Hallmark Channel, as the case may be.)
“Kinda Sorta,” and the episode that aired before it tonight, “Ride The Ram,” spend less time than usual on the dynamic between Jack and the kids, which reached its apex a few weeks ago, in the Carrie Brownstein-directed talent show disaster “Spectacle.” (Come for the EDM-themed candy corn barrage; stay for the weirdly beautiful handbell-based B-plot!) It makes sense; Jack has always kind of liked his students, even when scheming against or talking down to them, and these episodes are about him finally admitting that he likes everybody else in his weird little life, too. “Ram” focuses on Jack’s relationship with Whitlock’s sweetly sad-sack principal, Ralph Durbin, the kind of man who gets a reverse vasectomy in the morning, only to find out that he’s expected to ride a mechanical bull for his school’s wounded pride by afternoon. Howerton’s chemistry with Patton Oswalt was a central support beam for the show’s first season, one it eased a bit away from as its second progressed. It’s good to see Jack and Durbs chilling together again, even if it takes a more-absurd-than-usual set of bad decisions in order to get Jack up on said mechanical bull in his buddy’s place. (Never let it be said that this show won’t go out of its way to make Glenn Howerton look ridiculous, though.)
“Kinda,” meanwhile, is all about Lynette, as Jack wrestles with what it would mean for their slow-moving courtship if he finally caught his personal Roadrunner and became a best-selling author at last. (His attempts to write a book about what the fat-rich, TV-heavy diet his Ohioan neighbors exult in says about human happiness having been the main running plotline of season 2.) The pair’s relationship has been a throughline of the entire season, with Alderfer acting as the ideal foil to screw with Jack’s devotion to misery: Sarcastic, smart, and dedicated to a similar brand of low-grade evil—except that she also actually loves Toledo with all her heart. Having exhausted its original hook, A.P. Bio needed a new source of dramatic tension to keep itself going, and the conflict between Jack’s utter contempt for Ohio, and the woman he “kinda, sorta” loves’ hometown pride was its most consistent and engaging fuel.
Narratively anyway; in terms of comedy, this show is, and always will be, at its best when pitting Jack with or against his students, and these last two episodes suffer a bit from the change in focus. Excepting Oswalt and Paula Pell—whose deranged school secretary Helen is an easy shoe-in for the grand pantheon of cheerfully bizarre TV oddballs—the show has always struggled a bit with what to do with its non-Jack adult characters, especially fellow teachers Mary, Michelle, and Stef (Mary Sohn, Jean Villepique, and Lyric Lewis). The trio wanders through these episode’s B-stories much as they have through the rest of the show, their low-key sociopathy less cutting or funny than the brand proffered by Jack. (Which is a shame, because all three are funny, talented performers; they’re just stuck in a less interesting version of the show.)
But when “Ride The Ram” and “Kinda Sorta” stick to what A.P. Bio is best at—those moments when Jack and his kids are facing off in the classroom, bouncing terrible ideas and put-downs off of each other—they offer some great moments. The montage of the kids trying off their “confident” walks in the finale is a winner, and both episodes give a quick spotlight to Sari Arambulo’s Grace, whose chipper near-psychopathy has made her a late standout among the younger cast. (Nick Peine is also great as always as Jack’s preferred punching bag, Marcus; his appearance in the Matchbox 20-scored dream sequence at the start of “Kinda, Sorta” is another highlight.)
A.P Bio’s second season ends on a note that feels like blatant defiance of the show’s announced cancellation (which you can read more about, alongside its hypothetical survival, in our chat with Oswalt for today’s What’s On Tonight). Its last moments offer Jack and the viewer everything they could have possibly wanted: New York and literary success for him, and the idea of Paula Pell Billy Madison-ing her way into his classroom for us. If it ends tonight, though, it’ll be with a sense of an arc at least somewhat complete. A.P. Bio was a show about a guy who didn’t like things, and if we’re being honest, it suffered for it more often than not. On the one hand, its refusal to soften those edges faster than it did felt deliberate, giving Howerton more time to flesh out the anxiousness and misery sitting at the heart of Jack’s detached attitude. But it also cut the series off from the sort of enthusiasm and warmth that helps make stories happen. In its last (?) two episodes on the air, A.P. Bio finally solved a problem that it’s not entirely clear it ever knew it had. It’d be nice to see what happens next, but even if we don’t, at least we got some pleasantly mean laughs (and a whole bunch of very funny young performers to keep an eye on in the years to come) along the way.
Individual episode grades:
“Ride The Ram”: B+
“Kinda Sorta”: A-
“Ride The Ram”
- Ralph, fantasizing about being gym buddies with Jack: “That could be cool…if no one there is mean.”
- Jack’s efforts to move his new fridge into his house alone are a tad on the nose, but they also lay down another layer of him finally accepting and investing in his life in Ohio.
- All of the kids’ ’70s Day fashions are on point.
- Grace moment: “We should kidnap their peppiest cheerleader, and put her in a glass case!”
- Also disturbing: Victor (Jacob Houston) and his refusal to elaborate on how he wet his brother’s bunk bed from the underside.
- “Can you get some more crotch ice for my paper underpants, please?”
- So much spitting!
- Is classroom favorite Heather’s successful attempt to throw off the rival school’s star bullrider an American Beauty reference? What a weird pull in 2019!
- Why did Sarika ask Heather to read her big Harvard plan to Jack? “It wouldn’t have worked if it was Marcus or Caleb.”
Caleb (in a very funny line-read from Jacob Manown): “I’m the second-worst after Marcus?”
- “I was at the zoo when a panda gave birth. Yep, I saw a little baby panda Durb right out of the mama.” Jean Villepique, demonstrating her command of new vocabulary, zoology, and top-notch sloppy sandwich acting in one fell swoop.
- Jack, after Victor almost stops breathing during the confident walk montage: “Why did you volunteer for this? It’s not your thing.”
- “His soul mate is on a date with a strong, handsome milk celebrity!”
- And the other great Grace moment, when asked about her net and pool cleaning supplies plan: “This wouldn’t fully dissolve a body.”
- And that’s it: I have no idea if Mike O’Brien will actually be able to wrangle a new season for the show—NBC burning it off in momentum-killing chunks like this probably didn’t help fan enthusiasm build—but if he manages it, I’ll be watching. (On Hulu, not live; sorry, Patton.)