“What’s good to watch?” That's the question every television critic needs to be prepared to answer on a moment’s notice — even, I’ve discovered, during these days of social avoidance. One of the perils of answering that question is that there’s a lot of really good product out there. In fact, the overwhelming percentage of my show reviews these days are positive, as I confirmed while comparing my recent Metacritic archive with those from my thumbsy-downsy newspaper years.
TV shows in 2020 are also far more audience-specific than they were even in 2010. Something I recommend may be quite good, but not quite good enough for the person receiving the recommendation. For instance, I feel fairly confident texting friends my review of Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit, because it’s got something for everybody: retro fashions, Cold War nostalgia, female empowerment, orphan fantasies, and a kicky, mostly accurate depiction of Sixties chess. Plus, everybody’s got Netflix, and I’m not unmindful of the other great reviews that show has been getting.
Alas, I’ve discovered that my readers and I share a common problem — time constraints. The Queen’s Gambit is six hours long. What’s more, it involves a minimum time commitment of about 45 minutes per episode. Doesn’t sound like much, except there’s seven episodes, which for many people is three or four episodes too many. As I argued in my review, I don’t think The Queen’s Gambit — or Defending Jacob, or any number of other super-sized movies — would have been as good at the conventional theatrical length of two hours. But people don’t have indefinite time for watching TV and I respect that.
Which brings me to A Teacher, an unusually intense psychological drama starring Kate Mara as a Texas high-school teacher who seduces a boy on the edge of eighteen, played by Love, Simon’s Nick Robinson. How intense is it? Each episode comes with trigger warnings and a helpline for viewers who think they might have been groomed by someone. (They even made a PSA featuring Mara.) These resources perhaps would only be added to a program like this in the age of Jeffrey Epstein, but the story of A Teacher is a timeless one about the breaking of societal norms and the consequences that follow.
Robinson plays Eric, a popular but vulnerable teenager whose inability to control his obsession with Claire Wilson, the new English teacher (Mara), plays neatly into Claire’s own emotional problems and a marriage to Matt (Ashley Zukerman) that has lost its zip. At its core, though, A Teacher is not about the guys. This is a star vehicle for two women — Mara in front of the screen and Hannah Fidell behind it.
For Fidell this is actually A Teacher 2.0. Her original version was a 2013 indie film that she wrote and directed. HBO executives watched the film and saw the potential to stretch it out into a longer narrative for a larger audience. They signed Fidell to adapt it as a miniseries. Years went by. Now FX has picked it up and produced it for Hulu, as part of its FX on Hulu brand. (The show won’t be airing on cable initially, because Hulu’s owner Disney wants to wean viewers off cable, although in my opinion this has become the most tortured separation since Charles left Diana for Camilla.)
For Hulu, Fidell’s longer version has been diced into ten episodes, each no more than half an hour long. The shorter episodes are helpful, because each one packs a wallop — like episode six, where the doomed lovers have one last fling, followed by a long, gut-wrenching scene where Claire drives to school knowing what awaits her. Or the destructive denouement in episode nine. If you want to see a show about a woman using power to her advantage, watch The Queen’s Gambit. If you want to see a creative female mind exploring how female power, when it runs into the brick wall of societal taboo, can be self-destructive, A Teacher is your show.
Back to my point about time constraints, it’s easier to recommend A Teacher knowing that viewers can take it in 20 to 25 minutes at a time — less of a commitment than a miniseries with much longer episodes. What’s more, FX and Hulu are doing something refreshingly throwback with A Teacher. They’re only releasing the first three episodes this week and making us wait for the rest, which drop one per week through the end of December. This is what Hulu did with Normal People, the excellent adaptation of Sally Rooney’s excellent novel that the streamer released earlier this year, also in digestible little episodes (though Normal People had a lot more sex and a lot fewer consequences).
Which is better — the weekly episode drip of traditional terrestrial TV, or the binge drop? Netflix didn’t come up with the idea of dropping episodes en masse out of thin air. Netflix used to be mostly a DVD service, and spent years observing its consumers as they binge-watched shows. Still, I think A Teacher makes a case for going back to the weekly drip. Eventually, of course, every show is a binge show, but when it’s first being offered to the world, you get longer sustained buzz from a weekly drip. But don’t take my word for it. Watch the opening triptych of A Teacher and then don’t be surprised if you find yourself coming back next week for more.
A Teacher’s first three episodes are available this week on Hulu, with future episodes dropping every Tuesday through Dec. 29.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.