Sunday, April 27, 2014

Pilot Review: Bad Teacher

Bad Teacher (Thursdays at 9:30 on CBS)

Am I the only one with fond feelings toward the 2011 Cameron Diaz film the new comedy Bad Teacher is based upon? I've seen it dozens of times, including in a movie theatre full of laughing people, but most of the reaction toward the small-screen adaptation is, "Why redo such a bad movie?" While I agree that it's not exactly a good choice for the play-it-safe network, CBS, I thought Bad Teacher could work well enough as a weekly series on, say, pay cable or even a more subversive channel like FX. Because everything that made the film funny to me has to be stripped away for broadcast television: the vulgarity, the profanity, and the cast's performances.. So what we're left with is a fairly standard woman-behaving-badly sitcom without nearly as much bite as its source material.

Like the film, Bad Teacher follows a newly single woman, Meredith Davis (Ari Graynor), as she tries to find a new sugar daddy to seduce and marry. Unlike the movie, there's no attempt made to situate the series within any plausible universe. At least in the film, the titular character was actually a teacher. She may have always sucked at it, but it was always her career. In this version, Meredith doctors a resume a la Sue Ellen in Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead and ends up with a teaching position at a local middle school, where rather than imparting lessons on history she instead dodges advances from the cute gym teacher (Ryan Hansen, Veronica Mars) whom she knew from high school and stalks divorced dads. There's another awkward principal to contend with (David Alan Grier); a quirky, loner friend teacher (Sara Gilbert); and a rival over-achiever (Sex and the City's Kristin Davis).

There are quite a few problems here, not the least of which is that this is simply a fail as an adaptation. Bad Teacher was such a popular film (despite recent recollections, it grossed $100 million domestically and made back its budget five fold) because it was so lewd and outrageous and subversive. Diaz's character in the film was the ultimate anti-hero. Audiences loved how awful she was, but she was really smart underneath all the scheming. And the ending was brilliantly dark, proving that "good" and "right" don't always prevail. The series adaptation goes in the opposite direction. Meredith still isn't very likeable, but she's truly a dumb blonde this time around, and she has to have a heart in there too... because this is CBS, after all. Meredith's big moment in the pilot i teaching a group of unpopular girls how to call the popular girls names and how to assert themselves in the hierarchy of cafeteria seating. It's a far cry from the advice the film's teacher gave her students, like, "Do you even want to be President, or is that something your parents want?... Maybe you decide you wanna be a massage therapist: salary plus tips. Think about it."

Bad Teacher also suffers from a tonal crisis. The film worked because everyone was operating at theh same level of absurdity, whereas that's not the case here. David Alan Grier is confusing as the principal, who instead of being a weirdo who collects dolphin figurines is now a borderline rapist who constantly sexually harasses his employees and stalks his ex. Sara Gilbert is subdued but appropriately quirky; Ryan Hansen is sleazy and off-putting (it doesn't help that before we meet him, we learn that his ex has posted pictures of his penis all over the school). But the biggest problem is with Kristin Davis, who is relatively lifeless as Meredith's rival. Why does she hate her and want to bring her down? We don't know. Just because... because she's too serious, and Meredith isn't serious enough. It's a flimsy excuse for tension and a weak definition for a character. Her character is one of the script's most glaring issues.

One thing that's very much right about Bad Teacher, however, is Ari Graynor. She's a sexy, smart-mouthed bombshell with incredible timing and a natural grace. Graynor can make stupid jokes like, "I'm sure I can find some Asian teacher to copy off of," work and seem funny. Her performance is the show's saving grace and the primary reason I assume anyone would come back for a second helping.

It's hard to put into words just what makes Bad Teacher so... well, bad. It's not terrible in the way some other sitcoms have been this season, but it's a thorough waste of talent. Hilary Winston's script isn't all that funny, and it shifts Meredith too easily from "airheaded bitch" to "role model." And it's just not a good adaptation, removing everything that made the film enjoyable and toning it down for a broadcast audience with a combination of off-kilter humor that doesn't usually translate and awkward supporting performances.

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