CBS’ adaptation of Bad Teacher throws so many talented people at the question of how to turn the Cameron Diaz movie into a TV show that it will inevitably come to a point where it’s at least relatively good, if not excellent. The show’s cast is headed up by the reliably entertaining Ari Graynor, who shows a surprising talent for being an amusing reprobate here, but she’s ably backed up by the likes of Ryan Hansen, Kristin Davis, David Alan Grier, and secret weapon Sara Gilbert—who’s basically playing her character from The Big Bang Theory, but with better lines. And the series has been brought to television by the writer Hilary Winston, best known for her work on Community and Happy Endings, but also well regarded as the author of a very funny collection of essays.
One of the secrets of TV comedy is that nine times out of 10, if you just get enough funny people together and let them work at it long enough, they’ll come up with a reliably entertaining and funny show. (The 10th time out of 10 is Up All Night.) In its first three episodes, however, Bad Teacher isn’t quite there. It comes close on enough occasions that it’s an enjoyable watch, but it’s struggling with the question all sitcoms built around awful people struggle with: How do you find a way to make a terrible person not just funny but somehow identifiable to the audience? For Bad Teacher to work, the audience has to, on some level, want Graynor’s Meredith Davis to succeed in her quest of tricking the school she teaches at into thinking she’s qualified for her job. But because Meredith is such a superficial, shallow, and self-obsessed person, the show’s core ends up feeling rotten, even as its many surfaces are often hugely entertaining.
The key change from the film version of Bad Teacher is that the sitcom turns Meredith into a fraudster who fakes her credentials, taking a middle-school job so she can hit on the rich fathers of her students. Winston leans heavily on her Community experience here, and she’s letting Meredith play a page right out of the Jeff Winger-playbook, in that she thinks this is only a temporary thing and doesn’t want to get too attached to her fellow teachers or students. The difference, however, is that if Jeff doesn’t get with the program, he only hurts himself. If Meredith continues down her path, she’s ostensibly depriving her young charges of a valuable education. It’s a problem Bad Teacher has yet to solve in its first three episodes, despite Graynor’s considerable talents at delivering flippant dialogue with a hint of acid wit.
The answer to this is so predictable that it ends up shooting the show in the foot. Meredith, inevitably, will learn in every episode that she really does care about her students or fellow employees, and she’ll use her considerable life experience and street smarts to help them navigate the tricky labyrinths of social situations, even if she’s not giving them the best education in social studies. It’s a formula that’s worked for so long that it’s become threadbare, and Bad Teacher seems so perfunctory in its approach to this particular story point that the episodes inevitably run out of gas in their third acts. They’re much more amusing in the early going, when Meredith is misbehaving and the other characters are being kooky. Inevitably, Bad Teacher will reach a point—just as Community did—where its protagonist isn’t looking for an escape route from her situation in every sports car that pulls up to the school, and it will almost certainly be a stronger show at that point.
Despite the structural problems, there are considerable delights in each one of these episodes. All of them contain a handful of belly laughs, and the dialogue is sharp and pointed even when it’s not riotously funny. Graynor is a treat, and the supporting cast surrounding her—both teachers and students—finds new notes to play in familiar types. Gilbert and Hansen, in particular, offer up new spins on the socially maladjusted nerd the hot girl takes under her wing and the stand-up guy hiding in plain sight whom the heroine will inevitably end up with. The show benefits whenever they’re on screen, particularly when they’re sharing the screen together as a couple of unlikely oddball friends. Surrounding adult actors with kids is always a gamble, but Bad Teacher has a bunch of unexpectedly funny 11- and 12-year-old students to offer quips and occasional sight gags. Even better, Winston and her writers seem to be quickly figuring out exactly what sorts of gags all of their talented actors are best at delivering, which is a good sign for the show’s long-term health. Plus, any time it seems like the show is introducing something that will be drawn out for seasons to come, it’s just as quickly dispatched. That’s encouraging as well.
Bad Teacher is also intriguing, because CBS hasn’t aired a show this weird before. It would be middle of the pack in terms of oddness on any of the other networks, but on CBS, it feels downright strange to go from the traditional antics of Two And A Half Men right into a show where the middle school is named after Richard Nixon—and comes complete with a giant mural of all of Nixon’s greatest accomplishments that is frequently used as a background accent. The show is in some ways held back by its network, both because there’s no natural fit for it on the schedule and because CBS’ house lighting style has the tendency of making everything seem too realistic, thus making Meredith’s various escapades seem a little too serious at times. (The show is also over-scored within an inch of its life, but that seems to be a network TV problem in general right now.) But it’s also encouraging to see CBS trying its hand at this sort of joke-a-second comedy—and coming close to pulling it off too. Bad Teacher will succeed if it gets time to work out the kinks; now, it just has to hope its network realizes that.
Developed for television by: Hilary Winston, from the film of the same name
Starring: Ari Graynor, Sara Gilbert, Ryan Hansen, Caitlin Kimball, Kristin Davis, David Alan Grier
Debuts: Thursday at 9:30 p.m. Eastern on CBS.
Format: Half-hour single-camera comedy
Three episodes watched for review