Few shows illustrate the fundamental problems with broadcast TV in the 21st century better than A.P. Bio. Mike O’Brien’s hilarious sitcom ran for two seasons on NBC, and despite good reviews and a great cast (including Patton Oswalt, It’s Always Sunny’s Glenn Howerton, and SNL writer Paula Pell), it barely made a dent in the pop culture consciousness. It didn’t get the audience a network show needs to stay alive, but also didn’t get the hype and word-of-mouth buzz that seems to be lavished exclusively on streaming or pay cable shows these days. It was a show stuck between audiences—the people who would most love it never saw it because they’ve largely tuned broadcast out, and the people who still regularly watch the legacy networks didn’t vibe with its slightly surreal tone or surface-level cynicism. That’s a shame, because A.P. Bio is one of the funniest, sweetest, and most charming sitcoms in years.
Thankfully the show’s getting another chance to win people over. A.P. Bio’s third season just launched on Peacock, the new streaming service launched by NBC Universal this summer, and it’s lost nothing in the transition to streaming. A.P. Bio remains a classic sitcom in quality, if not in popularity or stature.
There’s a long list of reasons that this show is so good, but let’s work in broad strokes. Beyond obvious strengths like the cast and the writing, probably the two most foundational elements to the show’s success is its tone and its setting. A.P. Bio immediately established its own unique voice, one that trickily dances between seemingly opposite notes. And by setting it in a high school, a setting rife with comic potential that’s weirdly underexplored by sitcoms, it found a backdrop almost everybody is familiar with but that hasn’t been done to death.
“One of the things that was always so great and special about the show was this sort of strange wholesomeness,” Glenn Howerton tells us, striking at the heart of what makes the show work so well. The star and co-creator of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia—one of the darkest and most proudly cynical comedies in TV history—plays the central character in A.P. Bio’s sprawling ensemble. Jack Griffin is a disgraced Harvard professor reduced to teaching at his old high school, and is almost exclusively responsible for what amount of cynicism and bitterness can be found in the show. Instead of actually teaching his students A.P. biology, he uses them in a variety of schemes geared towards his own selfish goals, from reviving his failed career to enacting revenge upon his perceived enemies. It’s a character almost as narcissistic and sociopathic as Howerton’s Dennis from It’s Always Sunny.
Unlike Dennis, though, Jack is surrounded by people who are actually nice and positive at heart. And although the show does sometimes portray characters like Oswalt’s Principal Ralph Durbin and Pell’s Helen Henry DeMarcus as being naive, gullible or foolish, it doesn’t look down upon its cast of plain-spoken Midwesterners in the way that Jack does. They’re fundamentally decent people trying to get by while doing the best they can in the process, struggling with their own internal demons and weird personality faults. As creator Mike O’Brien tells us, “The fun thing about the show is everybody except Jack really loves their job and loves being at Whitlock [High School] and does their best at the job.” Jack is almost always shown as being in the wrong, and although he has matured a bit over the first two seasons, there’s still enough of his inherent pettiness and assholishness to keep the show’s original engine running.
Paula Pell sums up the balancing act the show plays with its characters and its tone nicely while discussing her character. “What I love about Helen is I came from the Midwest originally and she reminds me so much of all those ladies I grew up with, that go spend their Kohl’s cash the moment Kohl’s opens to go get their polyester pants and fancy blouses,” Pell says. “She reminds me of that but then she has like 19000 other layers of darkness and surprise and filthiness. There’s so much inside Helen; she’ll be on a speech and you’ll be like ‘wait so you murdered someone? Oh, okay.’ And then of course we revealed that she was gay. There’s just many layers to this woman and I love a complicated character.”
Jack’s cynicism is also offset in a different way by his students. A.P. Bio has developed its core group of high school students into a top-notch ensemble, each one reflecting a distinct archetype of teenage outsider while still transcending those confines. No, they’re not afforded the depth or nuance of Freaks and Geeks—this is still a sitcom, focused primarily on comedy over emotions or personal lives—but there’s a similar sense of familiarity and wistfulness about them. And although most of them happily go along with Jack’s frequently dangerous, often illegal plans, they collectively balance out Jack’s constant negativity.
The students and the young actors who play them—Sari Arambulo, Allisyn Ashley Arm, Marisa Baram, Aparna Brielle, Miguel Chavez, Jacob Houston, Eddie Leavey, Spence Moore II, and Nick Peine—also highlight the show’s other greatest core strength. High school is both a universal setting for a TV show, and one that somehow hasn’t yet been the setting for a genuinely good, truly classic sitcom. (Sorry, Head of the Class—you were so close.)
“It’s a great setting,” O’Brien explains. “Everybody knows what it is and there’s an infinite number of side characters you can do. Once in a while we’ll be like, ‘what’s shop class look like? Can we build that set and cast one of our funniest favorite comedians to come be that?’ There’s just endless teachers, staff, students, and there’s a lot of set tension in the authority of the hierarchy, from the principal to the teachers to the students, and it’s set up for comedy really well.”
Unlike almost every other TV show ever set in a high school, A.P. Bio smartly focuses on the whole community of a school instead of just the students and their social lives. This isn’t a soap opera, a melodrama, or a live-action Saturday morning cartoon like Saved by the Bell; A.P. Bio is a classic workplace sitcom in the style of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, NewsRadio and The Office, only the workplace is one that almost every single viewer will have first-hand experience with. Also some of the characters aren’t getting paid to be there (while the rest aren’t getting paid enough).
As O’Brien points out, a high school is an endless source of cameos and guest spots that don’t feel forced. From administrators to teachers to custodial and lunchroom staff, there’s ample room to seamlessly write in new characters and actors when there’s the need for it. Past seasons have seen Ron Funches pop up as a janitor, Tim Heidecker as a motivational speaker, Mark Proksh and Taran Killam as teachers, Niecy Nash as a teacher’s union rep, and more. These comic pros bolster an already superb cast, and in a way that makes perfect narrative sense because of the school setting.
Having watched some of season three’s eight episodes, I can confirm that it hasn’t lost its way. Although shortened by the COVID pandemic (it was originally supposed to run for 10 episodes, but production shut down right as cameras were set to roll on the ninth one), A.P. Bio’s jump to Peacock was a smooth transition. If you’ve never seen the show before, you can find the first two seasons on Peacock as well, and once you cross that threshold from the NBC era into the Peacock era you probably won’t even recognize it.
O’Brien, for one, hopes the show will continue on past this third season. “I would be eager to do a fourth season,” he says. “We have two of them written already. We literally have a few not only ideas but full episodes written and rewritten that could be ready to go. We’ve got a ton more—I think because there are so many characters, we still have a ton of ideas and different combinations of characters and scenarios.”
Hopefully A.P. Bio will find its audience on its new home, and hopefully O’Brien and his cast and crew will get to explore all those ideas and scenarios for future seasons.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, music, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.