Grooming in FX’s A Teacher

FX on Hulu is treading lightly with the new miniseries, A Teacher.

The show, which premiered three episodes Tuesday, follows an illicit relationship between a high school English teacher and her student.

Seemingly ripped from any number of tabloid headlines in the last two decades, the premise of A Teacher is not particularly new or inventive. I’m afraid there isn’t an area code this issue hasn’t touched, leading to regular appearances of teacher-student relationships in film, television and pop culture.

The difference this time is not the story itself, rather in the way A Teacher is framed. Before each episode, a content warning title card advises of depictions of sexual situations and grooming. As far as I know, official FCC content descriptors do not include “G” for grooming under a TV-MA rating, which leads me to believe the series is well aware of its responsibility in messaging.

Actress Kate Mara, who depicts teacher Claire Wilson, shared clips on her personal Instagram feed in promotion of the first round of episodes to premiere. In one caption, she described the series as a tale about “an abuse of power and its consequences.”

Refreshingly, there is nothing sexy about this accurate description of the series’ subject matter. Unlike late night Lifetime originals, which bank on forbidden desire and steamy melodrama, A Teacher frames child grooming for what it is: abuse.

Definitively, grooming is when “someone builds a relationship, trust and emotional connection with a child or young person so they can manipulate, exploit and abuse them,” according to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Mrs. Wilson’s prey in A Teacher is high school senior, Eric. Over the first few episodes, Eric’s character is underscored by his overall goodhearted nature. Behind tomfoolery with his jock buddies or a racing sexual imagination is a young boy with loyalty to his struggling family and high hopes for his future.

Where A Teacher gets realistic is Mrs. Wilson’s preying on these qualities. Here, the grooming is subtle, as it too often is in real-life experiences. Something as simple as an unsupervised car ride can be a power play by a predator to isolate and control. Private meetings and social media connections forge unbalanced trust between the two; young Eric is soon set up to be confused and manipulated. I anticipate this dynamic will become more twisted as the series progresses and the student-teacher relationship becomes more physical.

A Teacher sets up Claire’s actions as a predator to be explained but certainly not excused. Unsatisfied with her life thus far, Mrs. Wilson seeks excitement by acting on her intrusive thoughts. Yet not much is redeeming about Claire’s character. Rather, the good in Eric is very obviously eclipsed by her selfish, inappropriate advances.

Out in the real world, it’s an adult’s responsibility to enforce boundaries that children and minors may not yet understand. Anything less runs the risk of predation. The more we define and normalize these rules, the safer we can keep the young and vulnerable.

I leave A Teacher episodes feeling icky; unable to shake the sense of how crushing exploitation can be on innocence. Perhaps, to the show’s credit, viewers are supposed to be left on edge about what they saw on screen. Predatory and abusive behavior may very well look harmless at surface level, but as we see, it can be devastating instantly. A second title card concludes each episode, urging anyone “struggling” to utilize a resource website listed for survivors. Enforcing a direct, non-romanticized framework, A Teacher may end up more than a cautionary tale; it is a call to be proactive against abusers.

Photo: FX