Both in society and in pop culture, the teacher-student affair has become unfortunately ubiquitous, alternately bastardized in “hot for teacher” celebrations of machismo and exploited—even fetishized—in media-circus scandals that mine salacious details for clicks and ratings. Lost in all of this, however, is the reality of the situation for the actual humans involved, whose lives are impacted long after the affair ends, the media interest wanes, and the swirls of judgment start to evaporate.
“We wanted it to be complicated for people,” says Kate Mara, who stars in and executive produces a new series that attempts to subvert the ways we’ve been conditioned to take in stories about teacher-student relationships. “We wanted people to feel conflicted. But ultimately you watch the series and you see the consequences of this type of sexual assault and power dynamics at play.”
In A Teacher, the new FX on Hulu limited series that launches Tuesday with its first three episodes, Mara (House of Cards, Pose) plays Claire, a thirtysomething teacher who starts at a new school in Austin. Nick Robinson (Love, Simon, Jurassic World) is Eric, a senior about to turn 18 who first starts bashfully talking to the attractive new teacher on a friend’s dare, and then genuinely seeks her help to tutor him on the SATs so that he can get into his dream school.
Tutoring turns to friendship which turns into flirting. Claire bails him out of trouble one night. They go on a campus visit together another weekend. Eric reads what he thinks are signs and eventually kisses her. She pushes him away with a scold for his impropriety. But later, at the homecoming dance, she leads him to her car, tells him to get into the back seat, and initiates sex.
What follows is an affair as it might play out in a romance novel. It’s illicit, and must be kept a secret. She’s the adult and he’s the minor, so she’s firm on the rules and the boundaries. But the passion and the sex is so great that she uses her position of control to break her own rules.
As the series alternates perspectives, you see how each justifies their participation in the relationship. Just when you’re whisked away on the honeymoon phase with them, the anvil drops.
There’s an abrupt shift halfway through the run. The affair is made public. Claire’s life is ruined. Eric is first lauded as “the man”—he bagged the hot teacher!—but, as the timeline fast-forwards years, you see how he’s turned into a zoo exhibit, then, ultimately, irreparably damaged by the abuse he mistook for bliss as a teenager. Claire grapples with her “mistake,” but struggles to understand the true weight of it as she, post-prison release, attempts to restart her life in a haze of bitterness and shame.
“The media and our culture has sensationalized these stories in headlines and clickbait,” Robinson says. “Doing research for the show, I was really shocked about how often something like this happens, and then how often it's quickly forgotten and not covered again.”
First-time showrunner Hannah Fidell translated the FX on Hulu series from her 2013 indie movie. FX worked with RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, on providing resources for viewers, and Fidell spoke with psychologists who specialize in sexual assault to ensure that the series was accurate in its depiction of the long-term toll an experience like this would take on the victim, as well as, in a rare example when it comes to TV dramatizations, the realities of “grooming,” the manipulative behavior used to coerce the younger victim.
But a key participant in A Teacher is the audience, who becomes somewhat complicit in the affair. In the early episodes, Claire hardly appears to be a predator. Their relationship seems organic. As it looks like they fall in love, you root for things to work out. You may even swoon a bit. The sex scenes might turn you on, as sex scenes tend to do. But through it all, you’re nagged by guilt; your head knows that what you’re watching is an unethical and illegal act.
As Vanity Fair’s Sonia Saraiya wrote in her review, the series “toys with the viewer’s embarrassment, or conversely, their voyeurism” in these scenes. As the narrative moves on and the consequences to Eric’s well-being start to manifest, the audience is forced to interrogate how our own prejudices about affairs like these have been shaped and distorted by media, culture, and our own intrinsic biases—and, broadly speaking, what responsibility we may even have in these horrible incidents.
“I think that shows that make people uncomfortable or that are difficult subject matters are really the ones that should be made,” Mara says, explaining that you need to witness those moments of apparent joy in order to understand why these people who otherwise seemed rational—hardly the characters we’ve seen in Lifetime and made-for-TV movies—were willing to take the risk.
You also need to see it in order to understand how confused, broken, and taken advantage of Eric feels as he struggles to look back at the time and digest the reality of what really happened, versus how he felt then.
After the first time Eric and Claire have sex, he looks in the mirror and proudly screams, “I’m the motherfucking man!” When their affair becomes public and even after Claire is sent to jail, his bro-y friends hail him for securing what they think is the ultimate high-school male fantasy. By the time he goes to college, Eric’s frat brothers treat him as a legend. But the more this happens, the more tortured and withdrawn Eric becomes.
It was important to plainly show how prevalent that boorish, ’80s-esque, raunch-com trope still is, Robinson says, because it shows “just how constraining and sometimes suffocating that view is for the survivor of the abuse.”
“There’s a lot of people telling Eric that he’s the man, and he uses it as a social currency when he gets to college,” he continues. “But he is struggling with his feelings about the relationship. It’s like, ‘I should just be happy. This was awesome, right?’ That’s what all of his friends are telling him when, in fact, he really is hurting and struggling inside. He’s feeling like he was manipulated, or lied to, or used. And those feelings are not typically associated with manhood or masculinity.”
Says Mara, “We needed to acknowledge that fantasy, because obviously there is a reason why it exists. But then, of course, I think that the show ultimately is a much more realistic view of what happens.”
In the wake of the #MeToo movement and even, perhaps, the recent death of Mary Kay Letourneau—maybe the most infamous teacher to participate in an affair with her student, and whose story inspired untold numbers of movies and TV series, all on a spectrum of sensationalized and problematic—the way these relationships are considered is changing.
That A Teacher spans many years after the affair allows the series to engage in that changing discourse and perspective as it progresses.
"Hopefully audiences realize just how complicated consent and abuse of power can be," Mara says. "That victims and abusers come in both genders. And we want the audience to reconcile their own understanding of predatory behavior with the reality of what these forms of abuse are actually like."
And for Robinson, the 25-year-old star perhaps best known for his roles in Love, Simon and Jurassic World, it meant one final opportunity to play a high schooler—though this time in what may be the most mature role of his career.
“I had given an ultimatum, like, I'm not gonna go back to high school,” he laughs. “But when I read the script, I thought the material and the story was worth it. It’s a different version of that character and experience that I’ve definitely never played before.”Now, however, he’s definitely done. “I am a little too old at this point to be playing a high schooler, but I'm glad that I had this last run around. Now I think I am officially graduated.”