The plot of the new series A Teacher may sound like a true story ripped straight from the headlines. Claire Wilson (House of Cards' Kate Mara), a young teacher at a suburban Texas high school, begins an illicit affair with her 17-year-old student, Eric Walker (Love, Simon's Nick Robinson). But despite the plot sounding all too familiar, A Teacher is not based on a specific true story. "It's a fictional story," Mara says in a PSA for the National Sexual Assault Hotline created for the show with help from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). "But its portrayal of abuse and trauma are real for many young people."
It's why the the 10-episode series, created by Hannah Fidell and based on her 2013 indie film of the same name, took steps to make sure both the film and this new series treated the subject matter with the utmost care.
Each episode will begin and end with a content warning about grooming, which is the process of gaining trust with the intent to sexually abuse. A Teacher's official website offers additional resources including a digital guide to recognizing the signs of grooming created with help from RAINN.
During a virtual panel promoting the series, Fidell explained that "because the show is about consent and abuse and victimhood and manipulation, it was really important for me that we partner with RAINN," according to The Wrap. "As a victim of sexual assault myself — although my experience didn’t involve a teacher — I wanted to make sure we got this story right," she added.
To do that, Fidell didn't base her series on any particular teacher-student affair — which could be quite traumatic for the individuals involved. Instead, she worked closely with therapists specializing in childhood sexual assault to be able to show the true lasting effects these kinds of abusive relationships have on young survivors. For Fidell, the reality of the situation was more important than basing it on a specific news story.
“Before the writers’ room ever began, Hannah was always very clear with me about all of the research and precautions they were going to take," Mara said during the virtual press conference via The Wrap. "She told me they were going to be talking with survivors and lawyers who repped both the victims and the abusers."
Fidell wanted to go beyond the headlines and shine a light on this kind of predatory romance that ruins the lives of not only those involved, but their family, friends, and communities.
The series starts by portraying Claire and Eric as star-crossed lovers who, if it weren't for their ages and power dynamic, you might root for. In fact, A Teacher "makes the audience semi-complicit in this narrative,” according to Robinson, who also spoke at the virtual press conference, drawing sympathetic viewers into their whirlwind romance. Not everyone will fall for this though. In their review, TVLine said it was like "watching a horror movie" to watch this unlawful relationship unfold.
But as the show progresses, "the rug gets pulled out from under you and you start to question what this relationship actually is,” Robinson said. What it is is abuse and later episodes show how Claire manipulated Eric. In the days, weeks, months, and years after the relationship, it becomes more clear the adverse effect it had on their lives. Particularly, Eric, who was too young to understand what was going on.
Fidell's movie, which only portrays the teacher's side of the story, ends without dealing with the aftermath of the relationship. With the series, she looked to further the conversation surrounding male survivors of sexual assault, who, more often than not, are left out of the narrative surrounding sexual abuse. This is despite the fact that one in six men having been the victim of sexual assault or abuse, according to RAINN.
While it does take time, Eric eventually realizes that his affair with Claire wasn't love, but abuse. He does so in a way "that I certainly haven’t seen with Dawson’s Creek and Riverdale,” Fidell said, referring to Riverdale's first season in which Archie (KJ Apa) is dating his teacher and Dawson's Creek's storyline in which Pacey (Joshua Jackson) had a sexual relationship with his English teacher as a highschool freshman. Both relationships were portrayed as sexy, forbidden relationships, rather than predatory crimes. And neither series ever addressed the aftermath of these experiences for their teen characters. Instead, both did as many movies and shows have done: portraying young men as sexual heroes for bedding older women, rather than showing the reality that they are victims of an abuse of power.
A Teacher delves into the real trauma that comes with these kinds of abusive relationships, something Fidell is proud of. "I think that really separates us from what other shows have done in the past."
A Teacher is now streaming on Hulu.