Buckle up, everyone: things are about to get really uncomfortable. A Teacher, the latest, most salacious drama from FX, takes us on a journey through familiar territory: the trope of the teenage boy who engages in an illicit affair with his predatory teacher. We’ve seen it a weirdly high number of times, from Pacey and Mrs. Jacobs on Dawson’s Creek to Archie and Miss. Grundy on Riverdale, and it never fails to elicit an unsettling response from viewers. A Teacher, however, never falls into the trap of trying to make this a steamy romantic drama: in fact, most of the series plays out more in the line of a horror film. There’s plenty of sex here, but absolutely none of it is sexy.
Claire Wilson (Kate Mara) is a bright-eyed new teacher at Westerbrook High School, eager to vibe with her students. She’s the cool teacher: she’s young, she digs Dylan Thomas, and she even hangs out at the same diner as her students. It’s there where she makes an immediate connection with Eric (Nick Robinson of Love, Simon), a popular soccer player in her third-period class who is focusing all of his energies on getting into college. To that end, she offers to help tutor him, so that he has a better shot at the SAT score he’ll need to impress admissions. Innocent, right?
Their relationship stays platonic for about five seconds. They’re inexplicably drawn to each other, with Claire bored in a failing marriage to her college sweetheart, Eric completely taken in by the idea that a confident older woman could be interested in him. And where there was originally a functional teacher-student relationship, a mess filled with overstepped boundaries and blurred lines quickly emerges in its place. Each takes tentative steps into an inevitable minefield: Eric calls upon Claire to rescue him after he’s caught drinking at a party that gets busted by the cops (one of whom, as providence would have it, just happens to be Claire’s brother), Claire interrupts one of their tutoring sessions with an impromptu college visit and a subsequent frat party. But where A Teacher really excels is in showing every step of the way that even in the instances where Eric makes the first move, he’s doing so with the acquiescence of Claire, who is supposed to be the adult in the room and is ultimately the one leading them down this path.
And it’s actually heartbreaking to watch how subtly she is able to control him. She flirts with him and invites the sort of attention that is confusing, especially for a romantically inexperienced schoolboy. And then when he picks up on her mixed signals and pursues her, she chastises him and makes him feel as though he’s the one behaving inappropriately.
When you make a television show like A Teacher, there’s always an awkward line to walk. You usually have to cast an adult to play the high school student so that you can include the sexual content the screenplay calls for without causing a massive uproar. But at the same time, when you hire a fully grown 25-year-old to play a high school senior, it leans into a narrative that paints high school boys as men rather than children. And visually, at least, the sexual abuse committed by the teacher against her student could be seen as less egregious, because it looks like two grown-up people in a sexual relationship instead of an adult woman and a minor. But A Teacher avoids these risks by continually presenting their illicit affair as completely unsexy. The unease of their sexual relationship contrasted with the relaxed, comfortable interactions he has with his classmates highlight how unnatural their dynamic is.
A Teacher walks a tightrope, and there are still probably a lot of people who are going to look at this and say, “The hot high school teacher sleeping with her student trope? Again?” But it doesn’t ever feel exploitative or lean into the problematic fantasy of a student-teacher relationship where the high-schooler is seen as virile and mature because he managed to sleep with his teacher. A Teacher doesn’t really paint what happens between Claire and Dylan as a romance: it’s sexual abuse. And framing it as such allows for a genuine conversation about what that looks like in concert with deeper themes of masculinity and power dynamics and child grooming. It might be a bit schlocky in its execution at times, but A Teacher for the most part avoids feeling tawdry or cheap, rejecting shock value in favor of thoughtful discourse.