Sam Brooks reviews Educators, a beautifully morbid and mean-spirited New Zealand comedy about high school teachers.
The daily life of a teacher is a well-trodden one on television. It’s not hard to see why: education and school provides a well-known structure, it’s a pretty universal experience, and the hardships of being a teacher are well-documented and well-known. The drama’s already there; all you’ve got to do is record it.
On the darker side you’ve got the early-aughts series Boston Public, about a fictional school that eventually resolves its arts-funding crisis by cutting all sport, basically turning the show into some sort of televisual fantasy. On the lighter side, there are about 50 shows unimaginatively called Teachers and our very own Seven Periods with Mr. Gornsby, inarguably one of our most successful local comedies.
Educators, a new comedy devised by Jackie van Beek (The Breaker-Upperers), Jonny Brugh (What We Do In The Shadows) and Jesse Griffin (Wilson Dixon), splits the difference between the dark and light. Focusing on the lives of a few teachers in an unnamed-but-probably-Auckland school, it’s likely the darkest comedy ever to come out of TV production powerhouse South Pacific Pictures.
It’s also one of the funniest, thanks largely in part to the performances. Van Beek herself is the MVP here, as she tends to be. Her character Robyn Duffy is an absolute nightmare, the kind of teacher who you would’ve laughed at when you were in high school, and if you were a parent, the kind of teacher you’d fear your kid being stuck with for a year. She’s uninformed, she’s unreasonable, and she’s wildly inappropriate with the students. In an early scene, she asks her students to write a journal, one that will absolutely be confidential – and then promptly revokes her promise, claiming that the journals need to be marked because they haven’t met requirements for the year.
Van Beek has a way of single-handedly pulling the handbrake on a scene and making it take a right turn into something much weirder and more complex. Whether it’s the way she quietly talks under the other characters during scene (simply muttering ‘same’ when another character says they’re divorced, for example) or how she turns normal words into punchlines (‘No talk-ing, no laugh-ing’ means nothing on paper but is gold coming out of her mouth), Van Beek knows how to play a scene to the hilt. Even though the show has no protagonist, Robyn Duffy becomes one by de facto – or at least the dark, bitter soul of the show – purely through the magnetism of Van Beek’s performance.
Even though Van Beek is the undisputed star of the show, she’s more than capably supported by the surprisingly large ensemble. Kura Forrester is a typical delight as the overenthusiastic, appropriately heightened drama teacher who wants to do a production of Equus, which I sorely hope we get to see some of in the show. Yvette Parsons captures the middling competence of her fussy receptionist character, filling her with all kinds of oddly specific interiority and quirks.
Putting its cast aside, where Educators stands apart from other local comedies is in how dark, and mean, the show is willing to go. This is a show where teachers laugh about supposed confidential journals, where one teacher pressures another to send him nudes of a student’s mother, and where a father violates his custody agreement by signing up as a student at the school so he can see his daughter. These are not likeable human beings, but they’re compelling ones.
It’s an incredibly tight rope to walk between problematic and funny but by casting the teachers, quite unexpectedly, as the undisputed villains, it manages to do bloody pirouettes upon that tightrope. It’s not that teachers – historically overworked, unfathomably underpaid – make natural villains, it’s just that we can so easily understand how someone in the education system might be ground down, going from a decent person into a straight-up monster.
The one drawback of the series is the length of its episodes. Each clocks in at roughly at 15 minutes, which falls in the bitter spot of both being too short and too long. It seems that webseries, or at least web-based television (can we just call everything a series now, please?) are increasingly cutting the 22 minute ‘half hour’ down to a brisk 15 minutes. I’m all for getting rid of arbitrary lengths, but at times Educators feels like it’s struggling to fill those 15 minutes, with some scenes trailing off and others stretching a joke well past the punchline. At other times the show juggles multiple subplots, and it feels like time constraints mean some are given unfortunately short shrift.
But most of the time, all 15 of those minutes sing with reckless, dark intelligence. The life of the staff room is well-trodden, yes, but the angry stomps that Educators makes through this familiar territory are hilarious and brutal. If only more New Zealand comedy took risks like this.
The first two episodes of Educators drops today on TVNZ on Demand. You can watch them right here.