‘A Teacher’ Presents a Thorough, Disturbing Examination of Abuse: TV Review

For the FX on Hulu series to have its full impact, wait to watch it until you can watch all the episodes at once.

A TEACHER "Episode 1” (Airs Tuesday, November 10) - - Pictured: (l-r) Kate Mara as Claire Walker, Nick Robinson as Eric Walker. CR: Chris Large/FX
FX on Hulu

After watching all 10 episodes of “A Teacher,” there’s no doubt where it ultimately stands. Claire (Kate Maramight be lonely, bored and self-loathing, but as she indulges her curiosity about her charismatic student Eric (Nick Robinson) to the point of seducing himit’s clear that she’s committed an enormous violation for which there’s no excuse. Exploring three specific stages of their lives — the initial “relationship,” the terrible fallout, a chance encounter ten years later — the series delves into the damage Claire’s caused and the quietly devastating ripple effects that Eric will experience throughout his entire life. As a whole piece of work, “A Teacher” is an intensive, immersive study of how abuse works and the intimate damage it can wreak. When broken up into individual episodes, though, the series stands on far more tenuous ground.

In its original form, Hannah Fidell’s “A Teacher” was a 2013 film that began with Claire and Eric meeting and ended with their secret getting out. As a television show, Fidell and directors like herself, Gillian Robespierre and Andrew Neel get the opportunity to expand the timeline and linger on moments that a movie might’ve necessarily had to breeze by in the interest of time managementRobinson — whose last pleasantly bland teen role in “Love, Simon” required a very different set of skills than this one — does a deft job of balancing Eric’s outward confidence with his simmering sensitivity. And though Mara struggles in the beginning to play Claire’s particular combination of chilly remove and fragile nerves, she becomes much more effective as Claire finally dissolves.

Though it was at first tempting to say that “A Teacher” should’ve stuck to a feature film length rather than expanded into a limited series, the complete picture makes clear why fleshing the story out is so valuable. Having the space to illustrate not just the abuse itself, but its complex aftermath, makes the series a uniquely detailed examination of abuse that’s otherwise afforded very little cultural introspection. The back half of the season especially explores Eric’s confusion and shame as he faces a lifetime of people seeing him as either a helpless victim or a swaggering legend. (If “A Teacher” could have used one more episode, it might have been one in which Eric finally untangles the specificities of the abuse; the series otherwise skips over that hard work to find him years later, having finally rejected any lingering guilt.) Having the entire show at my disposal, I watched it in two marathon gulps: first through “Episode 6,” which ends with the so-called “affair” coming to light, and then the last four episodes about Claire and Eric trying to move on. It wasn’t the most pleasant viewing experience I’ve had this year, but it was an undeniably powerful one.

Unfortunately, the rollout plan for “A Teacher” will make that approach impossible for most viewers. The FX on Hulu production will premiere three episodes on Nov. 10 before moving to a weekly model, with a single new episode dropping every Tuesday. It’s rare these days for me to argue for the merits of a show immediately releasing its full season in a world where that’s rapidly become the default — but for “A Teacher,” not doing so might end up a huge disservice to its potency. 

Viewed individually, some of the early episodes can make Claire and Eric’s dynamic seem far too romantic by virtue of portraying aspects of it through their eyes. For one, and not insignificantly, there are many vivid sex scenes that too often feel like just that: sex scenes, not manipulated assaults. The fifth episode, in which Claire and Eric steal away to a far-flung rental cabin for an entire weekend, leans hard into the idea of it being a romantic getaway between two star-crossed lovers, which is objectively disturbing given that the occasion is Eric’s 18th birthday. When viewed as part of the whole story rather than in isolation, it nonetheless makes sense as an active demonstration of the twisted way in which Claire and Eric see each otherNot coincidentally, that episode also marks the turning point of the entire series; after that trip, the façade falls spectacularly to pieces, sending Claire and Eric into even more self-destructive tailspins. If I were watching “A Teacher” week to week, however, this chapter would give me incredible pause before continuing forward, if at all.

So if you are interested in watching “A Teacher,” it might be useful to know upfront that the series ends on a far less ambiguous note than it begins. (In short: Claire may be complicated, but the reality of what she did is not.) But it also may also be crucial to wait until the full picture is available to take in all at once, overwhelming though that experience will be.

The first three episodes of “A Teacher” premiere November 10 on FX on Hulu.