3 out of 5
Created by: Hannah Fidell
It’s understandable by creator Hannah Fidell would want to expand her film, A Teacher, into a series: without, hopefully, trivializing the subject matter, it makes for a fascinating character study: why would married teacher Claire (Kate Mara) start an affair with a senior student, Eric (Nick Robinson)? Such stories are easy sensationalist bait, surely, but Fidell muddies the water a bit: when the affair starts, Eric is 18 (though still a student), and Claire is a younger teacher; the actors can pass for younger or older such that a scene where Claire accompanies Eric to a college campus tour is believable when she’s mistaken for being Eric’s age. Each episode starts off with a warning message about depictions of grooming, but, again, the tone here is careful: Claire’s grooming is subtle, but it’s there; however, Eric isn’t cast as blameless, playing in to the affair by treating Claire like a jealous flirt – ignoring her to gain her affection; pushing her away to bring her closer. And in A Teacher’s first half or so, before this romance starts to deconstruct – that is, before reality seeps in and others become aware of its occurrence – the show plays it like a romance, with first kisses, and confessions of love. We understand the other elements at play, but there’s a weird haze that hangs above it: if this was a “traditional” meet cute, with appropriately aged partners, the things we’re seeing might be charming or erotic.
It is, again, a fascinating dynamic.
Unfortunately, that’s about as far as the Fidell and her writers know to take it. The episodes are very short, less than thirty minutes, which is partially how the moral murkiness is achieved – we’re not allowed long enough to linger or leer – but also prevents the show from doing much beyond showing us a play-by-play of how things evolve and explode. When it teeter-totters into the aftermath (directly after, then some months after, and a final 10+ year flash forward), things dig a little deeper by attempting to show the human side of both characters – Claire’s instability and uncertainty regarding her own feelings; Eric’s slide from boastful “I’m the man” claims to realizations of what’s happened, the show still hasn’t quite settled on an approach beyond standing back and watching what’s happening. Which, overall, is preferable – showing these people as “real,” without black and white answers or justifications to events is more satisfying than gladhanding moral lessons to us – but still doesn’t necessarily ask much of the viewer; that is, despite a serious gloss to it – and sincerely amazing performances from its leads – A Teacher is still rather sensationalistic.