Continuing to mine British formats in pursuit of a comedy comeback, NBC attempts to replicate the process that has seen “The Office” become one of TV’s best half-hours, but can’t master the formula. Derived from a just so-so Brit series, the U.S. version of “Teachers” has lost much of its grit and feels thuddingly conventional. Show isn’t a terrible fit with its “Scrubs” lead-in, but lacks signature qualities to help make the grade in a challenging timeslot.
In part, the series is most notable for what it isn’t. Acerbic radio talk host Phil Hendrie turns up here in a supporting role, after unsuccessful efforts to develop a project around his double-talking antics in his principal medium. Here he’s just another discontented grunt, snapping off one-liners.
The show’s focus is Jeff (Justin Bartha), another youngish guy with a maybe not entirely hopeless crush on a co-worker, Alice (Sarah Alexander), a by-the-book prig who can’t understand Jeff’s “I don’t care about this job” attitude.
Jeff’s allies, meanwhile, including Calvin (Deon Richmond) and Dick (Hendrie), facing off against the spineless principal (Kali Rocha) and fellow teacher Mitch (Matt Winston), who, very much like Rainn Wilson’s character in “The Office,” is an officious tattletale with delusions of grandeur.
The premiere finds Jeff toiling away in a mediocre New Jersey high school, trying to woo an attractive substitute (Sarah Shahi) to make Alice jealous. The second episode involves a class field trip to see “Romeo and Juliet” that triggers an objection from a member of the Concerned Parents Assn. on moral grounds.
If the show really wanted to tackle an issue pertaining to academic freedom, it’s hard to imagine a more convenient or less biting straw man to use.
Bartha (currently sidekicking it in “Failure to Launch”) has a certain breeziness to his slacker routine, but at least two episodes in, there’s little reason to root for his relationship with Alexander. Barring that, there’s not much to get viewers invested, as all the roles seem to have sacrificed nuance for sitcom stereotypes.
Developed for U.S. television by Matt Tarses, “Teachers” isn’t a painful exercise, but it’s hard to imagine anyone coming away from these first few sessions feeling particularly enriched. Indeed, while NBC deserves kudos for launching “My Name Is Earl” this season, choices like “Teachers” and “Four Kings” represent the sort of nondescript workplace or residential ensembles that brought “Must-See TV” to its current predicament.
In short, “Teachers” is comedy played safe — not a bad strategy if you’re protecting a big lead, but hardly the game plan to erase a big deficit.