Saturday, October 3, 2020

A.P. Bio returns with a third season of its exceptional ensemble of mild cruel comedy

© Peacock TV LLC

‘A.P. Bio’ embraces the absurdity in its unintentionally abbreviated third season.
by Jeremy Fogelman

The NBC show A.P. Bio from creator Mike O’Brien never got great ratings when it aired, although it had some pretty fervent cult fans online (including me). Unlike me, most of them tended to watch the show on streaming, so the ratings never reflected the actual way people were watching it. While it may not be the sort of calming presence of The Office or the same level of insane popularity, it was funny, darkly comedic and sometimes sweet, with a cast that only got better as it went.

The third season continues this trend, with eight episodes (more were planned but they had to shut down production) that still covered a lot of fun ground. Although Glenn Howerton as Jack Griffin, super cynical teacher who refused to teach actual biology, was the initial draw, the show really got a great handle on the rest of the cast. Fellow teachers Stef (Lyric Lewis), Mary (Mary Sohn), and Jean (Michelle Jones) had a sort of chaotic energy that bounced off each other, and there was a lot of fun with Patton Oswalt as the too nice Principal Ralph Durbin contrasted against Jack’s cynicism. This also contrasted well with Paula Pell’s Helen, the principal’s secretary who plays the most broadly of anyone.

There are plenty of side characters with funny little running gags and moments, but the actual high schoolers in the AP class really have solidified to a great ensemble: Sarika (Aparna Brielle), the high achiever, and condescending, super annoying and weirdly overconfident Marcus (Nick Peine), laidback artistic with killer line delivery Anthony (Eddie Leavy), nerdy pals Victor (Jacob Houston) and Eduardo (Miguel Chavez), super cool Dan Decker (Spence Moore II), try-hard mousey Marissa (Marisa Baram) and “says super awkward things out loud” Caleb (Jacob Timothy Manown) are all great.

But the funniest of the gang are two: Allisyn Ashley Arm as super bespectacled but oddly supportive Heather Wilmore, who steals every scene she’s in (I still crack up about her line reading about Jesus as a ‘beefcake’), and Sari Arambulo as sociopathic Grace -- yes, there really is something consistently hilarious about a chipper, chirpy young girl cheerfully saying such super dark things. She’s always funny -- and is this perhaps the most diverse comedy on TV? Probably.

In the first episode "Tiny Problems", the show immediately combines comedy with bittersweet feelings as Jack addresses his connection to his beloved late mother by trying to get revenge on the owner of a store of small houses and items. There is a repeatedly hilarious moment in this episode where Jack brings up wanting to hurt the old lady owner -- Grace smiles, excited in anticipation -- Jack then further says they aren’t killing anyone, they get that right? -- Grace’s face falls -- and Victor says it’s good to hear it out loud. I’m laughing just writing that out again.

The second episode “Disgraced” centers around Jack’s attempts to ghostwrite a book for famous horror novelist Robin Shwank (Jon Lovitz, delightful), in a sort of “escapade of the week” style. But the third episode “Gary Meets Dave” goes pretty loopy and fun, with a bunch of cascading “Previously On” moments as many, many things go wrong throughout the school and everything smashes together Snatch style in a comedy of errors. There’s even a drug deal storyline with a very funny sequence of the kids buying things they can’t afford. This episode also does a great job showcasing the other teachers and other side characters, having funny moments throughout, including Gary and Dave, who are having the mildest issues and arguments of them all.

Episode four, “Get Hoppy”, is the first time we see Principal Durbin actually act like a jerk as he gets a touch of local Toledo morning fame. I’m always happy to see Maria Thayer in anything, and she plays the overly pleasant morning anchorlady here to build up Ralph’s version of Jack’s book retitled “Get Hoppy” to include his silly rabbit pictures. This is also the first time we see anything from Yuyao Deng (who also plays a character named Yuyao Deng), as she tries to get money to help her grandmother versus selling a T-Shirt that just says “Gone Tootin’”.

It’s a sort of mild commentary of societal priorities of guilt versus low humor.

© Peacock TV LLC

The fifth episode “Mr. Pistachio” keeps the connections building between Jack and the other teachers as they support him through an embarrassing doctor’s visit, while the kids compete over classic stupid “Best Whatever” in the school newspaper. More fun character building and awkward moments as they compete for pointless mentions and a decently weird side plot of Durbin and Helen competing for the same lady (Kellee Stewart).

The show gets experimental and weird again with episode six, “That That That”, which shows Jack attempting to film a lecture to get a job at the University of Wisconsin and going increasingly crazy, only partially due to his own issues and the rest due to toxic chemicals. Glenn Howerton is always great playing super unhinged, and this episode has him at some of his most unhinged yet.

The penultimate episode of the season is more sweet than funny, although it does utilize Lyric Lewis’ real world pregnancy for a funny storyline about her concern about the biological father. Ultimately the main plot has Anthony as a wrestling sidekick in another piece of pop culture that completely gets professional wrestling wrong, co-starring Ron Funches as a janitor turned local wrestler, and Lilian Garcia as a ring announcer (she’s an actual announcer in real life, including for the WWE in years past).

And the final episode, "Katie Holmes Day", is one of the silliest yet. Finally mousy Marissa gets a chance to shine more than just one-off gags, and the show has one of the weirdest ideas yet -- that Toledo has a holiday to honor Katie Holmes, one of the more famous people to come from there. There’s a great stupid joke about Caleb’s parents only celebrating “Jamie Farr Day”, the M*A*S*H actor who also came from Toledo, which adds to the absurdity of the world.

Admittedly, the Katie Holmes story about how she got the part on Dawson’s Creek is unusual, although the episode doesn’t entirely play it straight, of course -- naturally there’s a pageant that Jack wants to destroy, and naturally there’s a legitimately sweet, silly ending with a conclusion that feels like we get better insight into Marissa’s character.

It leaves Jack in a place where he feels truly connected to Toledo for the first time since he came back, and sets the stage for places unknown. I’m not sure what could even be next for a show like this -- how long can a year of an AP class really last anyway? And these kids are all already in their 20s despite some looking pretty young still. But maybe that all doesn’t really matter. I thoroughly enjoyed this shortened third season of A.P. Bio and I’m happy NBC brought it back, even as a streaming only season on Peacock.

Was it the only thing that ensured I’d get a subscription? Maybe. Would a fourth season be the only reason I’d keep it? Maybe. Time will tell.

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