A TEACHER Miniseries: A Misfired Look Into Grooming

Each episode of Hannah Fidell‘s steamy and messy miniseries A Teacher (based on her much better movie of the same name) opens with a content warning: “This series contains sexual situations as well as depictions of grooming that may be disturbing. Viewer discretion is advised.” Considering the subject matter explored in the story — a predatory relationship between a teacher and her student — the warning is, of course, a wise decision. But that, unfortunately, is the only thing that the show gets right, as most of what happens throughout ten episodes feel icky at best and mishandled at worst.

The show props itself as a character study, depicting how grooming often begins and ends, as well as how it deeply impacts those sucked into its vortex. But instead of trying to find and capture the nuance of that issue, it plays out like a cute and often erotic love story. Of course, this is never the intention, but too often the show almost feels like it romanticizes the illegal relationship it focuses on. Even when it tries to observe the devastating aftermath, it fails to say something truly insightful.

Twisted Romance Goes Wrong

The titular character in which the main plot revolves around is Claire Wilson (Kate Mara), the new AP English teacher at Westerbrook High School in suburban Texas. When we first meet her, there seems to be nothing wrong with her: she’s young, attractive, and articulate, with an equally attractive and loving husband, Matt (Ashley Zukerman), waiting at home every day. But of course, that’s just what it looks like on the outside. In fact, it doesn’t take long until we realize that underneath her calmness, therein lies something… complicated and troubled.

A TEACHER Miniseries: A Misfired Look Into Grooming
source: FX

During her visit to a shopping store after her first day at school, Claire steals some lipstick for a reason no one understands. Perhaps, the thought of getting caught is exciting to her. Or perhaps, there’s a rebellious side of her that’s been suppressed for too long and it only comes out now. Who knows. But this act of stealing is actually nothing compared to what she does next: carrying out an affair with one of her students, Eric Walker (Nick Robinson), a handsome straight-A senior who comes from a working-class family. Though they’ve met before in class, it’s only after Claire decides to be Eric’s private SAT tutor that their little fling starts to bloom.

Throughout the first two episodes, A Teacher attempts to lay out all the foundations into Claire and Eric’s affair; investigating the former domestic life while trying to make a case of why the two are attracted to each other, both physically and emotionally. But while both Mara and Robinson always deliver strong performances, displaying their characters’ emotions in detail, the script gives little insight into Claire and Eric’s interior lives; into what it is that eventually draws them close and closer to each other despite knowing that their relationship is wrong in the first place.

Sure, we know that Claire and Matt have some differences at home — Matt wants to start a family while Claire, on the other hand, is still unready — but aside from that, and incredibly vague info about Claire’s past life — her dad is an alcoholic, so she has to take care of him, which means that she’s not given a chance to live her life the way normal kid and teenager do — the show does very little to make us understand why Claire decides to “use” Eric as some kind of a get out ticket from her issues. That Eric’s perspective is also not fully explored certainly doesn’t help the show either.

A TEACHER Miniseries: A Misfired Look Into Grooming
source: FX

What’s even more troubling is the way A Teacher frames the central relationship. Instead of playing it out as an act of abuse, the show portrays Claire and Eric’s relationship in a really romantic and sexy way. Cool and passionate soundtracks are always humming in the background anytime the two lead characters spend time together. The sex scenes are always steamy. Then there’s also the small glance the two give each other whenever they meet at school. Everything is practically played out like an adult love story to a point where it almost feels like the show is glamorizing the thing it tries to oppose in the first place. Even in the second half of the season, where it largely focuses on the consequences of their affair, A Teacher still struggles to find something compelling to say.

The timeline often jumps anytime it comes close to showing us how both Eric and Claire’s lives are massively affected by what they did, and it hurts the show in a lot of ways. Not only are we not offered the picture of how Eric’s psyche is damaged by the affair, but we’re also not shown how he copes from it; how he rebuilds his life afterward. Even when there are two episodes focused solely on Eric’s (and two more on Claire) life after high school, A Teacher fails to give us the full picture. It’s such a shame, especially considering the more interesting direction in which the show can go in its second half: a compelling look into the aftermath of this specific illegal relationship.

A Little Saving Grace

Style-wise, however, A Teacher is exquisitely made. And knowing some names attached in the project — from Fidell herself to Gillian Robespierre (Landline, Obvious Child) — this actually shouldn’t be a surprise. Fidell, in particular — who aside from creating, writing, and producing also directs six episodes — showcases a great directing skill here, leaning heavily on indie-like aesthetic while always capturing every moment in a naturalistic way.

A TEACHER Miniseries: A Misfired Look Into Grooming
source: FX

The performances from the two leads are also phenomenal. Robinson, who’s previously proved he can bring nuanced to an otherwise formulaic material in Love, Simon, displays yet another great control of emotions. Instead of going full masculine and jockey, his performance contains complexity and even at times a little innocence. We can feel his anxiety and fear after his relationship is exposed even when the script doesn’t afford him meaty materials to work with. His performance at the final moment of the last episode is a powerhouse of acting, both vulnerable and tenacious at the same time.

But, of course, it’s Mara who truly shines from start to finish, delivering an acting range as remarkable as Lindsay Burge who plays the same titular teacher in the movie version. Her performance never goes full dramatic; it’s always subtle. But this quietness is an effective way to uncover her character’s brokenness. It’s too bad then that Fidell‘s writing is never as strong as his direction nor as engaging as Mara and Robinson‘s performances.

Final Thought

A Teacher wants to unveil the complexity of a predatory relationship, as well as its messy aftermath and dire consequences. And while it’s visually handsome, with performances from the two leads that are equally staggering, the show fails to accomplish what it wants to do in the first place, as the story often plays out like a love story instead of a character study. What a complete misfired.

What do you think of the show’s approach to explore its central relationship? Let us know in the comments below!

A Teacher premieres on FX on Hulu, with the first three episodes debuting November 10, and the rest releasing weekly.

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