Those Who Can’t finds all kinds of things interesting—penis drawings, faux socialism, lacrosse, nut jokes, colostomy bags, rock candy, teachers unions, political campaigns, Zen gardens, novelty flasks, and problems with rage, to name a few—but the one thing it’s absolutely not interested in is exactly what makes it work: warm, fuzzy feelings. The setting may be a high school (Reed Smoot High School, to be precise, a name that simply begs to be looked up on Urban Dictionary), but don’t expect even an ounce of Glee. There’s no inspiration to be found, and while there are certainly dangerous minds, they’re also rather empty, and they belong to the teachers.
Created by stars Adam Cayton-Holland, Andrew Orvedahl, and Benjamin Roy (of comedy troupe The Grawlix which, like the show, is based in Denver), Those Who Can’t is populated almost entirely by teachers who, frankly, suck. Even the most appealing qualities they possess manage to be off-putting, as with the passionate school librarian who was once known as the “shoving doula,” or the socially engaged history teacher who has a real problem with rage. In nearly all cases, there’s no pretense of pride in the work, and no delusion about skill (“You’re one of the most gifted teachers I’ve ever seen in my entire life,” says the principal; “There’s no way that’s true,” a teacher immediately responds). They hate the job, they barely tolerate even their friends, and with one exception, they can’t stand the students—who, to be fair, are also awful. Imagine It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, then make the characters a lot less likable.
So what, exactly, keeps Those Who Can’t from drowning in its own bitterness? It might be really down on education, and parenthood, and people, and the world, but it is utterly and unabashedly in love with jokes. Cayton-Holland, Orvedahl, and Roy lead a cast that’s committed to finding every last opportunity for a punchline, and showrunner Dean Lorey (Arrested Development) and the writers and directors gives them a landscape in which anything goes and nothing gets you fired. They’re like truffle pigs, rooting for humor, and they find it with a frequency that’s damn impressive. It’s not subtle, it’s not realistic, and it’s not reinventing the wheel. It’s just plain old funny—relentlessly, defiantly funny.
A lot of that comes down to some really smart setups, which make every scene a potential goldmine for punchlines both expected (pratfalls aplenty) and unexpected. Loren Payton (Cayton-Holland) teaches “The Queen’s Spanish” to classes of mostly Spanish-speaking students, while Billy Shoemaker (Roy) tries to engage his students in people’s history lectures about heroes like Sacco and Vanzetti. Erasing penis doodles from books takes up most of the time for Abbey Logan (Maria Thayer), the school’s librarian, Occupy Denver veteran, and Red Vine addict. And Andy Fairbell (Orvedahl, a standout in a talented cast) coaches the Lady Tariffs, the J.V. volleyball team he truly loves, when he’s not teaching P.E. (despite his lack of physical fitness) or leading health classes (about which he knows basically nothing). Each major character has his or her own blind spots, and most of them have quite a few. That lack of self-awareness creates setup after setup, a comic buffet where every plate gets filled and no dish goes untasted.
The problem with buffets is that not everything’s good. Those Who Can’t has far more hits than misses—the fourth episode, “The Fairbell Tape,” is close to perfect—but misses there are. Occasionally stories go past simple (as with “The Fairbell Tape,” which focuses on vending machines) and into forgettable (“Oof, Nut City,” an installment that borders on nonsensical yet remains funny). Worse yet, sometimes bits of incredible promise go mostly unharvested because there’s just so much going on already—the alcoholic stupors of Rod (Kyle Kinane) get particularly short-changed. Rarely does the show give its funniest stuff a chance to breathe, and that’s particularly unfortunate, because when the cast gets just a little extra time and space, the best jokes blossom.
Still, if the price we pay for this many jokes-per-minute is a bit of whiplash, it’s a hell of a bargain. The network must agree, as they’ve already signed on for a second season. Cayton-Holland, Orvedahl, and Roy seem to be having the time of their lives, and it’s almost impossible to watch people having that much fun without getting in the spirit of things. Those Who Can’t might not be interested in inspiring its audience, but it sure does know how to command attention. Turn away, even for a moment, and who knows how many jokes you’ll miss.