Try as it might, FX’s new series can’t quite thread the needle between manipulation and a quirky love story.
Each episode of Hannah Fidell’s new FX series A Teacher (based on her 2013 film of the same name) begins and ends with content warnings, disclaimers, and links to resources for young people who may be at risk for sexual predation. Wonder then, that the first five episodes play out more like a melodramatic indie love story, complete with an LCD Soundsystem backtrack and titles in soft millennial pink.
Kate Mara plays Claire Wilson, who we meet in the supermarket as she pockets a tube of lipstick. Look out folks, she pushes boundaries. Mara’s brand of middle-distance staring and intensely manufactured vulnerability (see her performances in House of Cards and American Horror Story) lend themselves well to Claire’s self-destructive recklessness. It’s clear from jump street that Claire bored in her marriage to husband Matt (Ashley Zuckerman), a man who manages to be emotionally and physically stifling despite being absent for most of the series. Her wandering eye is quickly caught by Eric Walker (Nick Robinson), one of her AP English students.
After agreeing to tutor Eric for the SATs, Claire begins grooming and manipulating her student, whose good-tempered nature never doubts her sincerity or her affections. Eric, whose sweetness betrays a real fragility, sees this conquest as the ultimate ego boost. “You’re the fucking man,” he tells himself after things get physical with Claire. And that’s what’s so insidious about A Teacher.
Mara and Robinson are so strong in these respective roles that they manage to disappear into them completely, and the viewer is the one who gets pulled into the heady, soft-focused fantasy of two people grappling with a powerful attraction. At times, Mara’s acting is so on point that at times it’s easy to forget that Claire—as the adult—is fully aware of just how wrong her actions are. The script makes a convincing case that this is more of a misunderstood love story than a nauseating tale of victimization. At times, I genuinely felt pity for Claire, despite Eric being the victim. “You’re a good man,” she tells him, despite both of them knowing that he is very much not a man.
Nowhere is this feeling of love-story-gone-wrong stronger than in the fifth and sixth episodes, which begins as an idyllic stolen weekend and ends in a stomach-churning crash of discovery and consequence. By the time the police finally show up at Eric’s door to ask him questions, it comes as a chaotic mix of relief and terror, panic and revulsion for those surrounding both Eric and Claire. The rest of the series, by comparison, feels like a bit of tacked-on misery porn, which negates any catharsis the viewer might feel at the final confrontation between Claire and Eric that comes ten years after the fact.
So while it may be my job to tell you if A Teacher is good or not, it might be better to ask “is it necessary?” Yes, it’s very good, beautifully filmed with strong writing and stellar performances all around. Robinson in particular puts in a stunning performance that he deserves to be recognized for. But if you’d ask if it’s necessary, I’d have to give a resounding no.
Much like Claire, A Teacher doesn’t quite know what it is.
The fact that Claire is often shown as being a victim of her own stringent rules (a product of growing up with her alcoholic father, MC Gainey) and bucking against having a baby with a man who is the walking embodiment of “just okay” doesn’t really make her more sympathetic. Lots of people have bad childhoods and boring spouses yet never end up becoming sexual predators. Where’s the limited series about those people?
And frankly, there is far too much real estate given to the hurricane of destruction that follows in the aftermath of the discovery and scandal, and not enough to the healing that Eric had to undergo to be strong enough to finally confront his abuser. If A Teacher exists to serve as a cautionary tale, it should also show that victims of sexual trauma have resources and that some semblance of a normal, happy life is just as possible for them as it is for anyone else. It’s not enough just to flash up a few content warnings and hotlines and call it a day. The process of healing deserves as much, if not more, airtime as the trauma itself.
Much like Claire, A Teacher doesn’t quite know what it is. A sexy soap opera? An unnecessary exercise in tragedy? It might be all of the above.
A Teacher premieres on FX on November 10.