Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
NBC has been on something of a comedy roll lately with their most acclaimed two-hour block of funny programming on Thursday nights since the heyday of Must-See TV. Sadly, while the critics have embraced shows like “The Good Place” and “Great News,” audiences haven’t exactly done the same. In fact, the rumor is that last week’s season finale of “Great News” was probably the series finale, although the other three members of this quartet—“The Good Place,” “Superstore,” and “Will & Grace” seem to have comfortably found their audiences. So, NBC does what a network does when one of their half-hours is faltering—try to find a replacement. And they’re doing so this week with the smart and funny “A.P. Bio,” a comedy that hinges on how much you enjoy Glenn Howerton’s abrasive style. For me, his blend of smarm and idiocy works, and this character isn’t too far from his Dennis on “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”. Missing that FX hit? You’ll get some of your fix here, but it could come at too high of a cost.
Howerton plays Jack Griffin, a disgraced philosophy professor who lost his job when he freaked out after not being given tenure at a major university. The fall from grace dropped him all the way to his hometown of Toledo, Ohio, where he’s stuck in a local high school, teaching Advanced Placement Biology, a subject about which he knows little and cares less. He enters class every day telling his kids to shut up, and informs them he will not be teaching them anything about actual biology. “A.P. Bio” is a spin on the traditional educational comedy in that the teacher is the irresponsible asshole and it’s up to the kids to keep him in line. Well, the kids and also the put-upon principal played by the seemingly everywhere Patton Oswalt, whose world-weary style is a perfect counterpart to Howerton’s take-no-prisoners approach.
“A.P. Bio” works best when focused on Jack and his students. While he repeatedly states that there will be no lessons learned and he refuses to actually become emotionally invested in them, they’re a likable crew of young performers, especially Aparna Brielle and Jacob McCarthy. The show is less effective when it becomes reminiscent of TV Land’s “Teachers,” showing us how Jack interacts with his co-workers, most of whom aren’t much better at their job than Griffin—they’re just less self-aware. A lot of the teacher’s lounge material falls flat, but could improve as the show progresses. Ultimately this is a star vehicle for Howerton, with a sidecar for Oswalt.
And that’s one of the reasons that, while I think “Great News” is a tick overrated by some of my colleagues, I hope this doesn’t replace that show. “Great News” comes from a classic ensemble comedy structure—it’s a show that allows different performers time in the comedy spotlight every week—and those are the programs that often grow and improve over time. Shows like “A.P. Bio” that are built so heavily on the persona of one comedian rarely work as well in the long-term. Sure, Howerton could allow for some of the kids in his class or fellow teachers to shine, but the first four episodes don’t seem to indicate that’s going to happen soon, whereas “Great News” was getting better every week. There are also rumors that if this show is a hit that Howerton will never go back to “Sunny,” and that they’re holding up production there to see how this does. So, while I like “A.P. Bio” more than about half the comedies on network TV, I’m conflicted because its success could mean the end of two superior shows—“Great News” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” Of course, “Great News” could already be canceled no matter what and “Sunny” has been on forever, and we could do worse than “A.P. Bio” in their place, but, like Jack Griffin’s failed career, the laughter is bittersweet when one considers what could have been.
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A tribute to Doris Day.