The most important and impactful creative choice made by A Teacher happens in the very first seconds, as each episode opens with the following warning:
This series contains sexual situations as well as depictions of grooming that may be disturbing. Viewer discretion is advised.
It’s a blunt statement about the content you’re about to watch, and it comes in sharp contrast to the somewhat dreamy tone established in the first episodes of the FX limited series about a teacher and student who become far too close on a legal and moral level.
It’s a relatively simple premise: English teacher Claire (Kate Mara) seems relatively happy when she arrives at her new Texan high school — while her marriage to Matt (Ashley Zukerman) isn’t perfect, she quickly makes a new friend on the faculty and dives into teaching her students with idealistic fervor. One of those students, Eric (Nick Robinson), isn’t perhaps as content as some of his classmates, as he’s juggling school, athletics, a part-time job, and helping his single mother take care of his younger brothers. But he’s smart and popular and has a decent chance at a great future, something that Claire offers to help him achieve. Unfortunately, the time they start spending together ends up crossing into dangerous territory — for both of them.
A Teacher is technically based on creator Hannah Fidell‘s 2013 independent film, which made a big splash at Sundance but as a thriller, is fundamentally very different from this show. Instead, Fidell uses the expansive possibilities of episodic TV to really drill into the characters as people, unfurling their past and present traumas across the seemingly endless Texas skyline — even as the empathic cinematography and romantic music seduce us into wondering just how far this will go.
Without two incredibly brave and vulnerable actors at its center, A Teacher would fall apart so fucking fast, but fortunately, Mara and Robinson give Fidell and fellow directors Andrew Neel and Gillian Robespierre everything they need and more to make this relationship work on screen, for all its soft moments and jagged edges. The blunt force of the more intimate scenes pushes the boundaries of previous FX programming, not necessarily because of what the characters are doing but because it’s so raw and real that it feels like it’s happening in your own bedroom.
A Teacher has already become a bit of a lightning rod for criticism from those who don’t necessarily see why a relationship between a nearly-18-year-old boy and a 30-something woman is being treated as a criminal act, as well as those who lean the opposite way and, based on the trailer, think the show is treating this relationship like a love story. In its totality, the show 100 percent makes it clear that no, this is an abusive relationship with serious negative repercussions for everyone involved. But the path it walks to get there is a difficult one, and isn’t the easiest to navigate.
Perhaps the show’s biggest flaw is one of its most appealing qualities on the surface — the subtle way in which this story gets told makes those title cards at the beginning and end of the episode feel very much necessary. Because, after watching decades of love stories that feature severe power imbalances, it’s at times easy to be as seduced as Eric by what’s happening. At times, it’s haunting to realize how many of Claire’s actions over the course of the series are quite definitely textbook signs of grooming, but they only stand out as textbook once you consult the textbook. Otherwise, it’s easy to want to buy into this love story as what both Eric and Claire tell themselves it is at first, before things fall apart.
That’s because it’s hard to see the inevitable coming when you’re caught up in Claire and Eric’s drama. A Teacher is being released weekly but is a remarkably addictive binge (and not a long one either, as the 10 episodes are all 30 minutes or less), and the goal at times is almost to make the audience complicit in wanting this relationship to work out — despite the fact that it’s very clearly wrong.
A Teacher is not a love story. It really has nothing to do with love. But those who find themselves in these situations in real life don’t know that, something which A Teacher is trying to capture, and ultimately makes it one of the most daring and complex series of 2020. Because, tragically, real life doesn’t come with a content warning.
A Teacher premieres Tuesday, November 10 on FX on Hulu.