Monday, February 26, 2018

A.P. Bio: “Teacher Jail” (Broadway Video, Sethmaker Shoemeyers Productions, NBC-TV, aired 2/25/18)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After the Winter Olympics closing ceremonies last night NBC showed what I assumed was the first episode of a new series called A.P. Bio — that’s short for “Advanced Placement Biology” — but turned out to be the second, the first (“Catfish”) having debuted last February 1. NBC is pushing this so-called “comedy” hard as part of their renewed attempt to make Thursdays their big “comedy night” on the network (including the reboot of Will and Grace, which I never liked even though it was supposed to be a ground-breaking advance for the depiction of Queers on network TV; frankly the early-1980’s show Brothers, which ended up in a limited run on a premium channel after the networks passed on it was considerably better!), and to promote this show they were putting on the second episode, “Teacher Jail,” right after the end of the Olympics. The best thing I could say about A.P. Bio was that it wasn’t as lame as it could have been: I was watching it partly to see if it would be as dreadful as most modern-day TV “comedies” (the marvelous Speechless on ABC definitely excepted) and also in hopes of seeing some genuinely cute young guys in the cast. The latter was an almost complete disappointment: the series lead, Glenn Howerton (playing Jack, a teacher who ends up in “teacher jail” after he’s censured for leaving his class unattended to get himself a snack from the break room), is hardly drop-dead gorgeous but is certainly easy on the eyes; and Patton Oswalt as his nemesis, Principal Durbin, is appropriately homely (and as comic school disciplinarians go is a far cry from the amazing Ben “Bueller … Bueller … Bueller” Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) but oddly manages to flash a quite nice basket under those horrible slacks he keeps wearing.

But that’s about it for beefcake in this show: the students themselves, at least the males, are the homeliest guys the producers’ casting people could find, though I rather liked red-headed Victor (Jacob Houston) if for no other reason that he’s depicted as a saxophone player — though he’s not imitating Pres, Bird or Trane but, of all people, Raphael Ravenscroft, who played the famous lick on Gerry Rafferty’s hit “Baker Street.” (Gerry Rafferty in general is a guilty pleasure of mine: I loved “Baker Street” when it was new if only because it was one of the few 1978 Number Ones that wasn’t disco.) The gimmick is that while he’s in “teacher jail” — a trailer at the back of the high-school campus where he teaches — Jack teams up with a fellow teacher who’s supposedly there for compulsively tickling his female colleagues, which plays quite a bit differently in the middle of “The Moment” of Hollywood’s concern about sexual harassment than the writers, Miles O’Brien and Rob Klein, thought it would when they made it up. In the end the “tickler” proves to be in “teacher jail” for an offense far worse than tickling — as Principal Durbin put it, he “dated” one of the dummies used for CPR training (and having gone through CPR training myself the idea of someone having sex with one of the dummies doesn’t seem that outlandish — or that funny) — and Jack gives up his appeal, in which he’s represented by teachers’ union spokesperson Stef (Linda Lewis), who’s still mad at Principal Durbin because 25 years ago, when they were both students at this high school, she got aced out of the presidency of the glee club by Durbin even though, as she proceeds to demonstrate, she had by far the better voice: she lets out a big soul whoop and, after saying the comparison is unfair, Durbin fires back, “And you flatted,” in what was quite frankly the funniest line of the show.

A.P. Bio isn’t aggressively awful like so many TV sitcoms these days (can you say The Big Bang Theory?), and there are moments when I actually laughed, but one odd thing about this show is that it’s absurdly overexposed. No, I don’t mean the amount of promotion NBC is giving it (though there’s that, too): cinematographer Blake McClure overlights everything, making this show look like a badly faded, washed-out home movie. I’m sure he intended it to look this way, but whatever artistic purpose series creator O’Brien (given the coincidence of him having the same last name as the torturer in George Orwell’s 1984, I have visions of sending him to Room 101 and making him watch episodes of his show over and over again) and cinematographer McClure may have had in mind eludes me. There’s also an ending more grim (though in an appealing way) than funny: after Durbin’s assistant Helen Henry DeMarcus (Paula Bell, a genuinely funny comedienne who deserves a better showcase than this) has taken over the class herself, turning it into a monomaniacal lecture with demonstrations (on herself) of human female reproductive anatomy (does every alleged “comedy” these days have to contain sex jokes — and lame, unamusing sex jokes at that?), the students recruit their own substitute and find their ideal teacher in Mr. Vining (Taran Killiam), who starts a lecture about the wonders of biology that sounds like Carl Sagan come back to life and gets as far as the first amino acids (“You may want to write that down,” he says) before … Jack comes back, released from “teacher jail,” and takes over to the students’ obvious displeasure. A.P. Bio is O.K. TV but nothing to write home about; a situation that could be screamingly funny instead turns flat and dull, though if there was little to make me laugh in this half-hour show there was almost nothing that made me groan, either, and that makes it one of the (relatively) better half-hour “comedies” on TV today.