How ‘Teachers’ Illustrates the Challenge of Transitioning From a Web Series to Television

How 'Teachers' Illustrates the Challenge of Transitioning From a Web Series to Television

In a world where some of the best television is only available online, it’s still an accepted belief that web series are a step down from "TV" shows. Part of it is linked to the level of quality associated with some buddies who knock out some Vine videos and call it a show, and the money, effort and proven talent expected from serialized efforts with distribution lined up. But that separation is slowly fading, as more and more people sink real money into web series in the hopes of breaking big, earning sponsorship or simply broadening their brand. Yet one thing hasn’t changed — time. Most successful web series are, by nature and demand, significantly shorter than their big brothers on TV. 

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Take, for instance, "Teachers." Created by the Katydids, a group of Chicago comedians who all share Kate as the basis of their first name, the web series tracks the very adult lives of teachers as they go about their demanding work days. Episodes focused on one specific theme, some of which they would revisit in sequels, but the group often pushed forward to make fresh jokes out of the many topics available to them. It also showcased high production value (considering its simple premise) and quite a few episodes in total, both elements which were likely only obtainable because of the brief episode lengths. 

And "episodes" is probably too generous a term. The webisodes ranged from about 30 seconds to three minutes, making for brief jolts of joyous moments and pointed commentary. The difference between that and a TV series couldn’t be more obvious in the most basic sense, but it couldn’t be more elusive in execution: TV shows are much, much longer. We’ve seen "Broad City," "Web Therapy," "Drunk History" and more figure out how to add in the extra 20 to 28 minutes successfully, but it’s not so easy to go from a great premise to a great show. 

"Teachers," the 20-minute TV Land version premiering Wednesday night, exemplifies the transitionary difficulty for most of its opening episodes. The creators and stars of the original web series stayed on — including Caitlin Barlow, Katy Colloton, Cate Freedman, Kate Lambert, Katie O’Brien and Kathryn Renée Thomas — while TV Land wisely added experienced producers Ian Roberts and Jay Martel as showrunners. Alison Brie of "Community" fame helped push this through to a series order and is also on board as an executive producer (as well as a solid guest star for the premiere). 

Yet scenes feel like smaller moments stitched together and stretched out to make the episodic narrative work. The jokes are constructed in fairly predictable fashion, with the spikes of humor coming from small, brief moments illustrating the humor of the people involved, who may lack the experience needed to apply it properly to this format. In short, I’m guessing the "Kates" know what’s really funny about their existing episodes and those moments would have been the ones they used for the web series. 

That’s not to say it’s all lacking. The performances are bursting with energy and genuinely winning. Cate Freedman, in particular, stands out as the quiet-talking truth teller with a drive as purposeful as it is mysterious. She’s still green, but her screen presence should make her fun to watch develop. That goes for the group as a whole, really, especially when these women are clearly focused on telling stories open to a wider discussion of feminism, even while remaining open to self-mockery. Those brief moments make you want the rest of it to be that consistently good, which leads to a natural feeling of positivity when it’s all said and done. 

But this is TV (Land), not YouTube. And the most important element to making this work is the general construction of the series. "Teachers" is built around the idea that those being educated are smarter, or at least more self-aware, than those instructing them. It would be easy to compare the show to "Bad Teacher," either the (pretty good) movie or the (God-awful) show, given the raunchy subject matter and poor role models thrust in front of children. But those bad-behaving instructors knew exactly what they were doing. You might have been left jaw agape at Cameron Diaz’s utter disregard for traditional teaching techniques, but she was three-dimensional in her deviousness. These ladies are caricatures of characters. They’re not meant to be taken seriously, as "Teachers" is more of an exaggerated satire than a grounded, good vs. bad, comedy. Its narrative seems restricted to individual episodes rather than a serialized arc, giving the show a sketch-like feel.

This, by itself, isn’t a problem. But combine the intentionally one-note characters with overextended storylines and it makes the episodes frustratingly uneven. "Teachers" knows what it is, but it’s not working just yet. Ideally, it’ll be given time to grow into the demands of the job. Characters will be fine-tuned. Episodes will be streamlined. Stories will become more satisfyingly interconnected. By the time these 10 episodes wrap, the show could find its groove and become thoroughly enjoyable or even addictive. For now, it might be best if the creators treat this as the next step in their ongoing education as comedy writers — and it’s probably best we watch the show with the same perspective.

Grade: B-

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