“A Teacher,” we’re told, works hard not to be salacious about a high school teacher who has sex with one of her students.
But the 10-part limited series — which starts streaming Tuesday on FX on Hulu — doesn’t altogether succeed at being something other than just exploitation.
(FX on Hulu is a specific section of the streaming service.)
You can probably imagine how this starts. Attractive, 20-something teacher Claire (Kate Mara) takes a job at a Texas high school, and soon develops a mutual attraction with Eric (Nick Robinson), a popular senior who is 17 when they meet. Claire’s marriage isn’t going great, although her husband seems largely unaware of that. And Eric’s home life is less than ideal. His father is completely out of the picture, and his single mother is struggling to support the family.
Claire volunteers to tutor Eric as he prepares for the SATs, and pretty soon they’re having sex in the back seat of a car after the homecoming dance. And then in various other places as they try to keep their sexual encounters secret. That’s not going to happen, obviously, or there’d be no story.
“I was really interested in exploring consent and manipulation and victimhood and what that means,” said creator/executive producer/writer/director Hannah Fidell.
Except that, unless you sit through all 10 episodes, you’re not going to get to that message. For all those high-minded ideals, the fact remains that it isn’t until the second half of the series that the narrative reaches the point where we see that it’s manipulative, abusive and just plain wrong. Not to mention illegal — in Texas, it’s illegal for a teacher to have sex with a student, even if the student is 18.
Instead, the first five episodes mostly portray Claire and Eric as a couple caught up in some sort of idyllic romance and a teenage fantasy.
“At the beginning, it really is just taboo and sort of the idealized male fantasy in some ways,” Robinson said. “I mean, I don’t know why this is such a common fantasy in our society, but I think it’s pretty clear if you look at any website that there’s quite a lot of these kinds of videos — teacher-student — and there’s something dangerous and exciting about that initially.”
That approach is arguably dangerous. This is a sex crime, not a romance.
Fidell said she wanted “to sort of make the audience complicit in the affair” before they realize that “the relationship is actually not what it seems and that there’s a really bad side of it.”
But that comes only after they’re seen as star-crossed lovers. And “A Teacher” is full of scenes that don’t look markedly different from similar plotlines in TV shows ranging from “Dawson’s Creek” to “Everwood” — except that they’re far more adult.
Episodes are prefaced with this warning: “This series contains sexual situations as well as depictions of grooming that may be disturbing. Viewer discretion is advised.”
That’s understating it. If this was a movie, “A Teacher” would be rated R for the language alone. And while there’s not much in the way of nudity, the sex scenes are more than a bit graphic and disturbing. And some of the choices — the stripper scene in Episode 7, for example — are questionable.
(The first three episodes of “A Teacher” start streaming Wednesday, with the final seven rolling out one per week after that.)
This is actually the second time Fidell has told this story. She also wrote and directed the 2013 independent film “A Teacher,” which ran 75 minutes. And she said it was “exciting … to have that time to really explore” the characters in the FX on Hulu series.
However, although individual episodes of the new version are relatively short (between 21 and 30 minutes), in total it runs almost 3½ times longer than the film, and that’s way too much. Long, languid looks at scenery and characters’ faces might work in an independent film, but not so much in a TV series.
The final episodes are by far the best, once Fidell gets to the points she said she wanted to make. And Mara and Robinson both turn in fine performances as people whose lives are forever changed — and are, arguably, wrecked.
“What I was really curious about was — what happens after?” Fidell said. “What are the consequences for, especially the student, but for both of them? Do they both have to live with a scarlet letter for the rest of their lives? And how does victimhood present itself differently for a male victim as opposed to a female victim?”
If only “A Teacher” didn’t take so long to get there. And if only it consistently made it clear just how wrong this is in every episode.