A subtle and disturbing drama of teacher-student sexual abuse
A Teacher, now airing on FX and Hulu, is a straightforward story, based on a disturbing trend, about a high-school English teacher who seduces and abuses a vulnerable student. Each episode starts with a warning that it will contain sexual situations and “depictions of grooming” that some people may find disturbing. And it ends with something along the lines of “if you know someone who needs help…” followed by a link and contact information. So while A Teacher is salacious, even scandalous, it’s also a good old-fashioned message drama for teens.
In that, it resembles the Afterschool Special, which ran a few times a year, late afternoons, on ABC. The Afterschool Special started its life as animated whimsy, and ended with a bunch of “straight talk” with teens that Oprah Winfrey herself conducted. But the bulk of the show was short movies, sometimes adapted from YA novels, about the problems that teens face. Episodes death with divorcing parents, teen pregnancy, first heartbreak, even death. In one hilariously overwrought installment, Scott Baio becomes addicted to seven drugs at once, but especially weed.
But the Afterschool Special never took on having sex with a teacher. That was a taboo topic, even in the libertine late 70s. But A Teacher breaks the taboo. And because this is the age of prestige TV, when people who make programs actually know what they’re doing, it’s not going to date as badly as some of the Afterschool Special’s spectacular examples of cheesy melodrama starring Nancy McKeon.
It helps that series creator Hannah Fidell has already set A Teacher in the semi-recent past. It takes place in 2013, in Austin, Texas. This leads to some anachronisms. As far as I know, Snapchat didn’t exist in 2013, but this doesn’t take away from the effectiveness much.
Kate Mara plays Claire Wilson, a physically attractive but blank-slate English teacher who starts a new job at an Austin high school. Mara doesn’t have a particularly wide range as an actress, but that makes her perfect for this role. Claire doesn’t laugh and doesn’t cry. She’s all vaguely upturned smiles, vaguely downturned frowns, or subtle manipulations. You can see why a high-school student would be into Claire, because she doesn’t seem to have matured much past that emotional age herself, even though she’s in her mid-30s.
But while Mara makes for an effective object of desire, the show really works because of a moving and believable performance by Nick Robinson as Eric Walker, the high-school senior who she seduces. Robinson carried the gay teen melodrama Love, Simon with ample charm, and the same goes for A Teacher. Though the actor is actually in his mid-20s, he plays the kid believably enough. And the fact that he’s an adult in real-life makes the graphic sex scenes that begin to happen more frequently feel a little less squidgy.
Eric is the real main character of this Afterschool Special, the at-first willing victim of a subtle act of sexual predation. Though FX has only aired four of the 10 episodes, you can already see this optimistic and helpful young man begin to deteriorate into a mess of arrogance, confusion, and deception. In order to make his relationship with the teacher happen, Eric has to debase himself in many ways. Though he calls himself “the motherfucking man,” he’s in fact anything but that. A Teacher beautifully shows how the wrong kind of love affair can lead to the deterioration of the self.
Claire’s motivations are a lot less clear. Though her marriage to a millennial hipster guitar player seems a little stunted, it’s not outwardly horrible. If she merely wanted to cheat on her husband, she’d certainly find many willing partners who’ve reached the age of consent. While Eric is certainly cute, high schools are full of cute boys and girls, and yet not every one of them ends up having sex with a horny teacher. There’s no exact explaining why this predator chose this prey.
At one point in the second episode, as Claire takes Nick on a walking tour of the University of Texas, she mentioned that she lost much of her own high-school experience to taking care of an alcoholic father. So it makes you wonder: Does she have a history of abuse in her past? And has that abuse led to her own sex addiction?
A Teacher works so well because it doesn’t lead to easy explanations. Claire doesn’t seem to start her new job with the intention of fucking one of her students. It just sort of develops that way, and she makes a series of exploitative choices that make the situation so much worse. In theme, this show resembles the controversial novel Tampa, by Alyssa Nutting. But in that book, the predatory teacher is a complete psycho from the get-go, a serial abuser who lives in an inner soft-core-porn fantasy world. Claire is more complex, a bored, emotionally needy weirdo who transfers her banal problems onto an innocent victim. It’s a disturbing watch, and not an easy one. But it is juicy, and movingly told, without a lot of pretentious narrative fat or flashbacks.
The Afterschool Special, at its height, may have been corny and occasionally ridiculous. But it often moved the ball forward on subtle social issues for teens that hadn’t previously received a good airing. A Teacher effectively serves the same purpose, even if it sometimes makes you cringe.