Each of the 10 compact episodes of “A Teacher” begins with an arresting trigger warning: The series contains “depictions of grooming” that may be disturbing. You have to look fast to see them, though. Before the first episode is over, Claire Wilson (Kate Mara), a young English teacher at a Texas high school, is lying to her husband about her SAT tutoring sessions at a local diner with a hunky 18-year-old student, Eric Walker (Nick Robinson). It’s not much longer before the tutoring moves to the back seat of her car.
“A Teacher,” which was created and primarily directed by Hannah Fidell, has a quiet but steady momentum. (It premieres with three episodes Tuesday on FX on Hulu.) It carries the story of Claire and Eric from first encounter to final recrimination, after prices have been paid and lives have been irreparably warped, in less than four and a half hours — tidy for a streaming mini-series. The 21-to-29-minute episodes zip by, and if you watch the later ones as they come out, a week apart, they might feel a little superfluous, like french fries gone cold.
That economy is one noticeable thing about “A Teacher.” More noticeable is how seldom it feels like a cautionary tale, despite the onscreen cautions and referrals to sexual assault resources and the story’s occasional explicit references to Claire as a predator. Most of the time it plays like a tragic love story in emo-prairie style, and it has the look and rhythms of a tastefully maudlin indie film. Which makes sense since Fidell, the daughter of the former New York Times Supreme Court correspondent Linda Greenhouse, expanded it from her 2013 film of the same title.
Not making Claire an obvious monster might be a brave choice post-#MeToo, but Fidell hasn’t made her anything else that’s particularly interesting or revealing. There are familiar dots for us to connect — an alcoholic father (M.C. Gainey), a pusillanimous husband (Ashley Zukerman) who spends their savings on musical equipment — but Claire’s infatuation with Eric just seems to materialize, a product of bodily chemistry. Mara, who projects sanity and a biting intelligence, makes Claire’s bad choices believable as they happen, and perhaps the idea is that they could happen to anyone. But that’s not a very dramatic idea.
Robinson, who starred in “Love, Simon” (and who, at 25, doesn’t look that much younger onscreen than the 37-year-old Mara), has more of a struggle making sense of Eric, who’s positioned as sensitive and fragile but comes across as preternaturally adult, in a way that doesn’t quite add up. Though if the goal was to steer the focus away from predatory exploitation and toward conventional melodrama, mission accomplished.
The sense of mixed messages carries through to the story’s abrupt conclusion, a sudden outpouring on Eric’s part that could be construed as a challenge to the audience — here you were getting all implicated in Claire’s and Eric’s romantic fantasies when you should have been seeing something else entirely. If that’s what it is, it’s a pretty lazy trick.