Being a television journalist means always being two weeks ahead and two months behind of most programming. There are shows you are required to consume as soon as screeners arrive and others that you longingly gaze at on your DVR, as weeks turn into months before you finally have a free evening to get caught up.
To my dismay, the FX on Hulu series “A Teacher” was one of those shows that got pushed aside in the holiday content rush, only for me to catch up in the new year. And I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.
In “A Teacher,” an adaptation of her 2013 film of the same name, Hannah Fidell has given her tale about a high school educator who enters into an illicit sexual relationship with a teenage student new life, with 10 30-minute episodes to explore said relationship — but more importantly, the aftermath — with greater depth.
The criminally underrated Kate Mara stars as Claire, a 30-something teacher with a beautiful home, a decent husband, an Instagram-fueled impulse to get pregnant, and an acute lack of interest in any of the previously listed aspects of her life. “Love, Simon” star Nick Robinson is Eric, a charismatic 17-year-old who is well-liked by his peers, a nice boy who takes care of his younger brothers while their single mom works, and is desperate to improve his test scores so he can attend the University of Texas. Kate is a new teacher at the high school, and when her path first crosses with Eric, their chemistry is undeniable.
If you read that description and sighed, I can hardly blame you. Teacher/student “romances” have been fodder for trashy Lifetime movies, as well as serious drama subplots, to say nothing of porn. For some, there’s nothing sexier than the exploitation of power dynamics, so it makes sense that audiences might be reluctant to dive into a series with a topic that has been explored so poorly for so long.
But “A Teacher” is not that show.
Don’t get me wrong, it took me awhile to come to that conclusion myself. In its first few episodes, the show’s intent seems slightly amorphous. Two beautiful people are flirting in a way that we want to be acceptable, in a way that masquerades as almost acceptable. Sort of. Does the show remember that it’s wrong of them to be together? Does the audience? Does it matter?
In order, yes, maybe, and yes.
For as much as early episodes of the series seem to feint at being the same old tawdry tale of forbidden lust and love, there are tiny tells that suggest that “A Teacher” is absolutely aware of who the villain in this story is, even if she doesn’t. (In addition, each episode is preceded by a trigger warning about grooming and a link to resources to learn more.)
So much of what works about the series comes at the hands of its finale, which features a time jump into the future and a chance crossing of paths between Claire and Eric, now 10 years older. In an ill-advised meet-up they discuss the direction their respective lives have gone. Claire is remarried, with two children of her own. She lives in fear, she says, of her past being discovered, of neighborhood moms realizing who she is or who she used to be. She grieves that her well-being depends on someone performing a single Google search of her name.
Eric has little sympathy for her troubles. We see him return from his work leading therapeutic wilderness retreats for children who have suffered trauma and he lambasts Claire for her negligence and dereliction of duty. He was a child and his burden doesn’t depend on a Google search, his trauma is with him always.
It also plays on the faces of the actors in each scene where they break through a new taboo. The first time they have sex, it occurs because Claire is unspeakably jealous of another teenager that Eric shows interest in after Claire has shut him down. She leads him out to her car in a deserted parking lot and he trails behind, almost dragging his feet. Here it is, the moment that is theoretically every teen boy fantasy and the emotions playing on Robinson’s face are of reluctance and uncertainty. He seems aroused by the circumstances, which is just basic physiological response, but also seems like he could absolutely vomit at any moment.
That is the entirety of their relationship. Claire leading Eric into the wilderness, not caring if he gets lost along the way, as long as she gets to get lost from her own life. Eric was never looking for an escape, but he became a parachute to an adult who knew better and did worse.
It’s not so much that Claire is an unredeemable character with nothing good inside of her. It’s that she’s unable to take true responsibility for her own failures, while simultaneously being unable to forgive those who might have wronged her along the way. “A Teacher” dances with this complexity lightly, refusing to spell it out for her and refusing to cut corners. Claire sacrifices everything to pursue Eric, but that’s not love. It’s a crime. That she is able to cobble a life back together is a luxury that abusers are afforded that victims often aren’t.
The series made nary a blip on the pop culture radar with its release, which could be attributed to any number of reasons, including its exclusive availability on Hulu, its late in the year debut, or its weekly release structure after an initial three episode drop. Or it might have been because of the show’s shaky reviews, many of which depended on viewing of just the first six episodes of the series and without the pivotal back half which serves as a contextual frame for what came before.
There are only so many stories to be told and so many get revisited time and again. What’s more rare is a series committed to telling an old story with new understanding of the material it’s undertaking and a clear-eyed concept of how ideas of consent continue to mature. Seek out “A Teacher” and learn something new from an old trope.