Two lovers are sharing an embrace, smiling at each other as if they’re the only people in the world.
They’re bathed in the warm light of the perfect day, backdropped against an idyllic farm with no one else in sight.
If you took a 10-second clip out of this ostensibly romantic scene, the kind of set-up we’ve seen hundreds of times in movies and TV shows before, you might be swept away in the moment like the on-screen couple.
Instead, your stomach is churning, willing this deeply uncomfortable scene to be over, because the lovers are Claire (Kate Mara), a 30-something English teacher, and Eric (Nick Robinson), her 17-year-old student.
The 10-episode series A Teacher is full of these types of moments, including scenes with illicit sex in a car or among linen sheets while soft pop music is overlaid. In another context, those scenes would be read very differently.
In fact, when the show streamed in the US in late 2020, each episode was preceded with a warning that the series depicts situations of grooming. In Australia, where A Teacher debuts this week on Foxtel*, there is no specific warning of grooming, but each episode starts with a card with the Lifeline number.
A Teacher could indeed be triggering for survivors of sexual abuse or grooming – especially as this series demonstrates, it’s not always obvious in the moment. Although, by framing the series with a warning certainly puts your hackles up and primes you to view everything through a specific lens.
Created by Hannah Fidell, who adapted it from her own 2013 feature, it’s a series that’s interested in exploring the dynamics of the power imbalance between a younger female teacher and her male student, a gender pairing that is sometimes viewed not as a predatory situation but rather as a badge of honour, as Eric’s friends do.
A Teacher is a show that requires you to watch the whole run to reveal its perspective, which at 21 to 29 minutes each, is not a massive commitment. It’s structured in such a way that if you only watched the first half, it runs the risk of being so nuanced you might think it missed the memo on the ethics of such an unbalanced relationship.
Because it spends so much time in Claire’s perspective it really explores what drives her to make these choices. It doesn’t seek to fully demonise her in the way you might expect of a sexual predator. Of course, the point is that Claire doesn’t see herself that way, which plays with the audience’s perspective of the scale of her wrongdoing.
Which is why those scenes in which Claire and Eric behaving as if they’re like any other couple are so uncomfortable. Without the context of the teacher/student dynamic, it doesn’t seem textually wrong – and Robinson, 25, never really passes for 17-years-old, which might’ve been a deliberate casting choice to challenge the viewer.
It’s in the second half of the series where the fallout of Claire’s affair with Eric becomes more apparent, the not-always-immediate effects of it bleeding into their lives and those of their family, including characters portrayed by Ashley Zuckerman, Adam David Thompson and Rya Ingrid Kihlstedt.
For the bulk of the 10 episodes, A Teacher is asking a lot of the audience to examine what they think is or isn’t predatory. Much of what it’s doing is subtle and understated so anyone looking for the answer or prefer to be told how they should feel will have to wait until the final five minutes before everything coalesces.
The pacing doesn’t always work, with the earlier episodes slow-moving while the back half rushes through some of the more salient emotional points. While audiences will have to fill in a lot of those beats, A Teacher is generally engaging and more rewarding if you stick with it to the end.
A Teacher premieres on Fox Showcase and Foxtel Now on Sunday, March 21 with a double episode, followed by new double episodes weekly
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*Foxtel is majority owned by News Corp, publisher of news.com.au