How do you tell a story about a 30-something teacher who has a sexual relationship (read: predatory) with her high school student well? One that presents emotional truths without suggesting outright villainy, and yet, never lets her off the hook? One that meanwhile explores the hesitant understanding of trauma by the student himself? Extremely carefully. And that is what Hannah Fidell improbably achieves, with aplomb, in A Teacher.
The 10-episode FX on Hulu series is Fidell’s expansion (and tweaking) of her 2013 indie film of the same name. But the series, with its taught half-hour structure, doesn’t feel like a movie. It leans into its episodic structure in a way that allows it to hit upon the exact story beats it finds most crucial with deadly accuracy. There is no filler here—everything is essential.
It’s admittedly hard to garner enthusiasm for a show that is ultimately about trauma and abuse, but Fidell presents this chronicle (which starts and ends with trigger warnings of grooming, as well as links to resources) in a way that never feels like either an after-school special or a glorification of its content. It is a teacher, a student, a story.
That teacher is Claire (Kate Mara), a young English instructor at a Texas high school whose life is presented as happy and easy; she has a loving, charming husband (Ashley Zuckerman), and is beloved by her students (as most young teachers are). By chance she has an out-of-class conversation with Eric (Nick Robinson), a popular but soulful senior who she ends up tutoring for the SATs. The two have a natural rapport that immediately begins to border on flirtatious. Claire likes the attention and being mistaken as younger, while Eric appreciates the maturity that she sees in him and the way he takes care of his family (he is, however, merely 17). Despite some initial pretense of innocence and even romance, it is of course—by its very nature—problematic.
This quiet, resonate series, beautifully shot and full of low-fi indie backing tracks, is deeply uncomfortable because of how naturally it portrays its troubling core relationship. Claire allows herself to fall into this situation because of the choices she makes—that is very clear. And while Eric is presented as the “pursuer,” the series makes sure everyone watching knows that Claire is really the one in control. It becomes even more obvious when she starts to make rules so that their affair can continue and escalate, particularly after he turns 18, all consequences be damned.
There are consequences, though, and one of the best things about A Teacher is that the story doesn’t end when Claire and Eric are caught. Instead, it continues to track the fallout and the emotional trauma that destroys them both—even though it takes Eric a long time to admit it. But Claire’s life also implodes, and while you can see why she makes the decisions she makes, there is (rightfully) no room for sympathy.
Mara is also a producer of the series, which is written and directed largely (although not exclusively) by women. The care taken to tell this story with authenticity and deep consideration is evident in every scene, without ever feeling like it’s being specifically cautious. A Teacher manages to be engrossing without giving way to salaciousness or giving Claire a pass, even as it explores her emotional life and the chaos of the affair and its aftermath. It also gives a full episode, one of its best, to how this trauma manifests in Eric’s world through drinking, reckless behavior, and an aversion to therapy.
Both Mara and Robinson are absolutely outstanding here, providing complex, difficult performances, and giving true life and context to their characters who are each hesitant to investigate the truths behind their interactions—Eric is even heralded and revered for his role in it by classmates. A Teacher shows all of the ways that others try to normalize or fantasize this encounter around Eric, and even Claire to a certain degree (something she tries to eventually embrace, terribly). Claire may appear to go into the situation wide-eyed, but as A Teacher continues, it really hones in on how she always had the tools to rationalize and handle this, whereas Eric is left haunted. It is absolutely heartbreaking.
If you give it a chance, A Teacher will surprise you. It feels like an easy pass, something perhaps not worth engaging in because it is so difficult to handle this subject well (and why, perhaps, should it be handled at all?) It is, however, a stunning character study that understands all of the stakes and implications of the story it is telling. And if you saw Fidell’s 2013 film, this version is very, very different, and goes further in many ways. The story is all the richer for doing so. It is a fascinating consideration, well told. And well worth your time.
The first three episodes of A Teacher premiere Tuesday, November 10th on Hulu (as part of the FX on Hulu partnership).
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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