Adults lie to kids all the time, for as many reasons as you might care to name: manipulation, protection, convenience, and, sometimes, just because it’s easy, and kind of fun. The annals of educational film and TV are full of “great” teachers who inspire their kids by lying through their teeth, convincing them that Walt Whitman might have an impact on their day-to-day lives, or that standing on your desk and yelling is anything but a ticket straight to Sore Throat And Sprained Ankle City.
A.P. Bio’s Jack Griffin never lied to his students. (Okay, actually, he lied to them all the time, but only in a “tricking them into doing his mildly malevolent bidding” sort of way.) When it came to the important stuff—like whether high school bullshit actually matters to anybody not currently trapped within it, or whether being an adult is some magical gateway to happiness or freedom—Jack played it absolutely straight, if only because he couldn’t be bothered to come up with a comforting half-truth. That radically honesty kid-teacher dynamic—playing out over a tapestry of revenge schemes, insults, and surprisingly heartwarming moments of raw unsentimentality—was the core of what made Mike O’Brien’s A.P. Bio such a refreshing show to watch over the last two seasons. It’s also a big reason why it’s such a stone cold bummer that NBC’s decided that the show’s upcoming second-season finale will be the series’ last.
Not the only reason; as we noted in our write-up of the show’s abrupt cancellation—announced by a heartbroken O’Brien last week, and kicking off the sort of fan-rallying “save the show” Twitter campaign that you can only hope will end up less quixotic than it initially seems—A.P. Bio was also the showcase for a near-criminal array of comedic talent, a crew it got a lot more comfortable deploying as it settled into its far-more-confident second season. Nowhere was that clearer than in the show’s most impressive episode to date, “Wednesday Morning, 8 AM,” which tracks its way through the halls of Whitlock High in the chaotic half-hour before a typical school day formally begins.
Working from a script by O’Brien, director John Solomon bounces his way to every major character in the show’s cast (and even some of its little-seen side characters, like Charlie McCrackin’s wonderfully weird Coach). Solomon’s camera passes from Jack’s efforts to get his fancy chair back from a new love interest, to home ec teacher Michelle’s attempts to eulogize the school’s dead crossing guard in a way that pays tribute to his numerous marital infidelities, to Paula Pell’s cheerfully deranged secretary, Helen, desperately trying to find the cash to free a hamster from a school vending machine where it’s been trapped. It’s an exercise in perfectly controlled television chaos, weaving between something like nine different subplots with an elegance rarely afforded to stories of dumb men haunted by the cursed breakfast burritos of the dead.
And though it aired third in the season’s running order, “Wednesday Morning” has the feeling of a season premiere, a mission statement outlining “Here’s our show, here’s our characters, here’s our world.” It’s the sort of turning point that shows like The Office and Parks And Recreation—both of which struggled to find themselves in their tonally weird first seasons, too—hit just as they were fully figuring themselves out, solidifying their casts, and, more importantly, their worldviews. Which, again, underlines what a shame it is that NBC has decided to pull the plug now, just as things at Whitlock were falling into place. The episode is also deeply, irresistibly funny, whether in Pell’s description of two algebra teachers kicking the shit out of each other on the school’s front lawn, or hapless janitor Dale’s doomed attempts to find a little peace in a rapidly flooding bathroom, or Patton Oswalt’s increasingly harried efforts, as put-upon principal Ralph Durbin, to make sense out of the madness around him.
Really, though, it all comes back to those kids. Thanks to its unusual structure, “Wednesday Morning, 8 AM” offers a rapidly accelerated version of a typical A.P. Bio plot, fast-forwarding through Jack’s efforts to weaponize his students against his latest target for (in this case, romantically bemused) revenge. Still, O’Brien’s script is careful to give establishing moments to each of the featured A.P. Biology students, allowing Eddie Leavy, Allisyn Ashley Arm, Nick Peine, Jacob Houston, Aparna Brielle, Sari Arambulo, Jacob Manown, Spence Moore II, and Marisa Baram—names worth remembering if you want a Who’s Who of rising comedy stars over the next 20 years—to show what makes each of their characters pop. To pull another Office parallel, watching these young actors find their characters over the last two years has been a lot like that moment when a bunch of background players suddenly turned into indelible comic presences like Stanley, Phyllis, and Creed, and it’s a credit to the performers, and the show’s writers, how clearly defined each kid has become.
It’s also hard to overstate how good Glenn Howerton is in these classroom scenes. As Jack, Howerton shaved off just enough of Dennis Reynolds’ inherent sociopathy to make a character that wouldn’t get immediately arrested for setting foot in a public school, leaving behind a guy whose contempt for those around him reads as a twisted respect. As we said, Jack Griffin never bothers to lie to his students, establishing a give-and-take with them that powers the show’s most interesting scenes. He treats them like peers—not peers he necessarily likes, but peers all the same. That willingness to talk to the show’s kids at (or, really, from slightly below) their own level is something A.P. Bio offered that nothing else on TV did, and it’ll be missed when—barring a miracle—it goes off the air for good in June.