When I was a kid, I ended up at the center of a sexual misconduct investigation involving my favorite teacher. It was an event no child could fully process, one that still I have trouble thinking or writing about well over a decade later. Lately, though, I’ve been drawn to stories about predatory teachers, building up my tolerance to them like I’m micro-dosing poison.
So many stories about bad teachers are themselves bad: salacious, as in Riverdale, morally reprehensible, as in Pretty Little Liars, or half-assed, as with any number of high school comedies that pose male victims as legendary for bagging an older woman. Even the most psychologically complex and empathetic stories about this type of predation, like Kate Elizabeth Russell’s bestselling book My Dark Vanessa, are controversial by definition.
Hannah Fidell is the latest filmmaker attempting to pull off this tricky type of story with A Teacher, an FX miniseries that’s based on her 2013 film of the same name. In this expanded and altered retelling, married high school English teacher Claire (House of Cards‘ Kate Mara) engages in a relationship with college-bound senior Eric (Love, Simon‘s Nick Robinson). While Fidell’s film ends before the full fallout of their powder-keg of a relationship occurs, the FX series smartly explores the long-term consequences of a teacher-student affair for both parties.
When it comes to laying its ethical groundwork, A Teacher does its job incredibly well. A title card comes on screen before each episode warning viewers not only of sexual situations but also of “depictions of grooming,” a common yet historically unacknowledged trigger for survivors of child sexual abuse. These words are powerful: they declare openly and repeatedly that, despite the central couples’ skewed perceptions, we’re watching a tragedy, not a romance. Similarly, an end title card provides a link to impressively robust support resources for anyone who may need them.
A Teacher gets credit for responsible storytelling, but that doesn’t mean it is always consistent. The series’ first half is laced through with cliches, and the writing is at times painfully on the nose. The hot older English teacher assigns her class Oedipus Rex. The nice, boring husband (Ashley Zukerman) only seems interested in starting a family and performing with his cover band. The all-star student is actually poor, but the series doesn’t engage fully with that experience, instead simply piling on shallow signifiers of a working-class lifestyle.
Any story this morally murky also requires a big buy-in from audiences early on. For us to engage with the show, we have to understand why Claire would take the life-ruining risk of instigating a relationship with her student, to begin with. Mara and Robinson both give fine performances that deepen throughout the series, but they have less-than-perfect chemistry. The series’ unadorned visual style also doesn’t do the heavily tone-reliant scenes between these actors any favors. The result is that Claire and Eric’s secret affair is a bit undercooked from the start, neither subjectively seductive nor obviously disturbing. Luckily, with episodes that only run from twenty-one to thirty minutes, A Teacher is capable of quickly gliding past its weak points.
Fidell’s adaptation picks up tremendously in the second half, which ventures beyond her film’s original story to explore the far-reaching repercussions of an illegal relationship. At times, this back half is riveting television. It certainly surprises on several occasions, forgoing obvious twists in favor of more subtle, character-based decisions. A Teacher isn’t afraid of employing time jumps, and in doing so it is better able to imagine the broad and deep consequences of unexamined trauma and predation. At some points, it lingers too sympathetically in Claire’s point-of-view, but this, too, seems to be part of a daring narrative long game.
The series ultimately delves into the psychological fallout of sexual abuse from a uniquely male perspective. What does a cry for help look like in a culture where binge-drinking, hypersexuality, and reckless behavior are already the norm? What does emotional support look like among men who don’t know how to talk about their feelings, or who assume all sex is a good thing? These are heavy questions, but they’re also ones many viewers will have never seen addressed on screen before, and A Teacher tackles them head-on.
Fidell’s miniseries is far from perfect, but it is bold and original in its narrative trajectory, especially when compared to other, mostly-botched small-screen attempts to tackle similar topics. Film and TV-lovers like to think we’re seeking out the objective best stories, but the truth is, most of the time we’re simply seeking connection. We want to see something that will make us feel less alone. We want to micro-dose that poison, internalize stories that will help us better understand ourselves and those around us.
A Teacher mostly succeeds thanks to its willingness to carefully confront the ugly, unromantic truths about an issue — child sexual abuse — that impacts millions of people. At its high points, the series isn’t a poison at all, but rather an antidote to the isolation that so often comes with trauma.
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