Review by Sean Boelman
There are some stories that are going to be controversial, no matter how delicately they are handled by the filmmaker. Hannah Fidell’s new series A Teacher tells one such tale, and clumsy writing does it no favors, causing it to become a sometimes thought-provoking but more frequently angering character study.
Based on Fidell’s film of the same name, the series follows a young teacher who forms a predatory sexual relationship with one of the students, and the consequences that it has on both of them. Obviously, this is very difficult subject matter, and Fidell’s approach is challenging, if nowhere near as nuanced as she seems to think it is.
For the first few episodes, it seems as if Fidell is trying to present the situation as if it isn’t black-and-white when in reality, it very much is. What this series is depicting is abuse and grooming, and while a warning that precedes every episode and a website linking to resources for victims acknowledge this, it’s frustrating that the series presents the character in a light that suggests we pity her.
The series has more success in its back half, as it starts to explore the repercussions of this illicit relationship, but it still feels like the format forces Fidell to pull most of her punches. The series misses the mark in the exploration of the teacher’s psychological deficiencies and the student’s trauma that are obvious factors in the story.
Additionally, Fidell has a problematic tendency to go off on tangents. At times, it becomes hard to figure out whether it wants to be a serious thriller, a quiet romance about forbidden love, or a high school comedy. Had some of the filler been cut, especially the sequences which show the student partying or having love troubles, it would have been more concise and effective.
Ultimately, this narrative seems like it would have been better fit to a bingeable mini-series format rather than the half-hour weekly drama that it is. The cuts for commercial breaks are abrupt and often distracting, ruining the momentum and suspense. And the time jumps that make up the last few episodes leave something to be desired.
That said, the series is saved by its cast. Kate Mara gives a thoroughly disturbing performance as the teacher who is dangerously broken. Her turn doesn’t quite feel villainous, but she also captures the manipulative undertone that makes the character so sinister. Nick Robinson is good for much of the series, but struggles to deliver in the final episode, which contains his most emotionally demanding moment.
There are moments of brilliance in A Teacher that show what this series had the potential to be, and in fact, the episodes directed by filmmakers other than Fidell are significantly stronger (Gillian Robespierre’s contributions are particularly good). Unfortunately, it just seems like Fidell struggled under the weight of the material and freedom of the format.
A Teacher debuts on Hulu on November 10 with subsequent episodes releasing on Tuesdays. All ten episodes reviewed.