When a filmmaker newly arrived to television perceives the medium as “movies, but longer,” it typically means they don’t know or care about how to structure individual episodes, or why that matters. (Though in some cases, as with Luca Guadgnino and We Are Who We Are, those who talk the “10-hour movie” talk somehow walk the episodic walk.) With FX on Hulu’s A Teacher, however, the concept becomes quite literal — and not very effective.
The 10-part limited series is Hannah Fidell’s adaptation of her own 2013 indie film about an affair between a high school senior and his English teacher. The film runs a scant 75 minutes, the TV version more than three times that. I haven’t seen the film (which is also streaming on Hulu, as well as Prime Video), but this take on the material consistently makes poor use of the extended time, wasting two strong lead performances by Kate Mara and Nick Robinson with a narrative approach that alternately feels labored and rushed.
Mara plays the title character, Claire, new teacher at an Austin high school where Robinson’s Eric is a senior with dreams of matriculating at nearby University of Texas campus. Eric’s buddies are immediately transfixed by Claire — “Oh, she is way too hot to be a teacher,” drools Logan (Shane Harper) — but he finds himself drawn to her for reasons that go beyond skin-deep. She proves a good SAT tutor, and they bond over shared experience with worthless fathers (his walked out, while hers just climbed into a bottle). One by one, the professional and emotional boundaries between teacher and student fall away, until the two begin what each thinks of as a passionate, consensual affair between adults. Later, Claire will defend herself by pointing out that Eric was already 18 when they met, but does that really matter when she was there in loco parentis?
Episodes clock in around 30 minutes or less, which in theory makes sense for such a small and intimate story. But Fidell and her collaborators (including Gillian Robespierre, Andrew Neel, and producer Jason Bateman) are more interested in mood than in plot, which makes the early installments feel both slow and disproportionate. This is a show that really likes to linger on meaningful glances, or on one of its lead characters simply lost inside their own head.
It’s obviously important for Fidell to show how gradually these two drift into an unhealthy situation. But dwelling on it for the majority of the season, despite the relationship only lasting weeks, and then racing through years’ worth of ugly aftermath in the last handful of episodes, gives too much weight to Eric’s mistaken belief that he’s in the middle of some fun, sexy times. The later episodes, which force both him and Claire to confront the true meaning of what has happened, come across as almost obligatory, even though that’s clearly not the intent. (Episodes open with warnings that they will include “depictions of grooming that may be disturbing.”) And the pair’s final encounter plays as if it was the very last thing filmed, with only an hour left until the production budget ran out. Suddenly, Fidell and the others seem to have realized there were a whole lot of sociological points they had failed to make, and this was their final chance to do so.
The imbalance makes sense to a degree. A Teacher wants to put us inside the heads of its two main characters, who are embodied so well by Mara (in an impressive break from her usual supportive-girlfriend roles) and Love, Simon star Robinson (making a solid argument that he’ll do well in the transition to more adult subject matter). These are two damaged individuals too caught up in their respective problems — Claire resents having married the first guy she slept with (Ashley Zukerman’s Matt), while Eric feels tied down by having to do so much for his single mom, Sandy (Rya Ingrid Kihlstedt), and younger brothers — to think through the implications of what they’re doing together. The show wants us to be similarly captivated by the flush of heat that both feel, so it will hit harder when things fall apart and they recognize what their actual responsibilities were in all of this. But their separate conflicts in that phase of the story are too basic to sustain things(*), while the last few episodes have to skip over a whole lot of potentially strong and relevant material just to arrive at that crucial final conversation between Eric and Claire.
(*) There are attempts to draw parallels between Claire and Eric’s relationship and things happening around them, including Logan trying to date the much younger sister of one of their friends, and Matt retreating to his more youthful days by reforming his old jam band. But they happen on the fringes, with all the light going to the leads.
Mara and Robinson really are excellent, and the series has unsettling atmosphere to spare. But outside of some specific moments in its second half, A Teacher feels as superficial and generic as its title. There may be a great 10-episode version of this story, but this is unfortunately not it.
The first three episodes of A Teacher are available now on Hulu, with the remaining seven episodes premiering weekly on Tuesdays. I’ve seen the whole season.