By John Mulderig | Catholic News Service
NEW YORK (CNS) — Stories of female teachers sexually abusing male students occasionally make the news, perhaps the most notorious example being the 1996 case of Mary Kay Letourneau, who died earlier this year.
Although a fictional take on the subject is a perfectly legitimate idea in theory, such material clearly calls for cautious treatment.
Delicacy of approach is, however, wholly lacking in “A Teacher.” The first three episodes of the 10-part drama series — an FX presentation adapted from her eponymous 2013 film by creator Hannah Fidell — are currently streaming on Hulu. Remaining installments will become available individually each Tuesday through Dec. 29.
Kate Mara stars as English instructor Claire Wilson. Among the first students Claire meets while settling into her new job at a suburban Texas high school is senior Eric Walker (Nick Robinson). Personable and ambitious, Eric — the captain of the soccer team — is out to improve his SAT scores in order to qualify for a college scholarship and asks Claire to tutor him.
As Claire encourages Eric to cross various boundaries, she conceals their burgeoning relationship from her husband, Matt (Ashley Zukerman). The cash-strapped couple’s marriage, already tense due to their infertility, is further strained when Matt revives his youthful interest in music and spends a bundle on the equipment needed to start a band.
A graphic scene of marital lovemaking is the most obvious example of the show’s wayward tendencies. While there’s no nudity involved, little else is left to the imagination. Similarly, an overview of Eric’s daily routine needlessly includes the sight of him masturbating to online porn.
Despite the solemn tone of an opening notice warning viewers that the program features a grooming theme that some may find disturbing, moreover, there’s an exploitative feel to the proceedings as a whole.
The fact that Eric is close to 18, for instance, and that a sequence strongly implies that his relationship with his ex-girlfriend, Alison (Camila Perez) — a bond he may or may not be on the verge of renewing — was a sexual one, might make his status as Claire’s victim seem less glaring. (The child on whom Letourneau preyed, by contrast, was a sixth grader.)
Are we really meant to react with revulsion to Claire’s flagrantly unethical behavior, or are we surreptitiously being served a taste of enticing forbidden fruit? The answer may become more apparent as the story unfolds and the consequences of its illicit central pairing are portrayed. But so far, Fidell and her collaborators seem to want to have it both ways.
In addition to its considerable sexual content, “A Teacher” also presents its audience with fairly frequent vulgarity as well as the occasional oath. Rated TV-MA, it’s already unsuitable for a wide audience and future episodes may make it inappropriate for all.
Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.