The classroom is a sitcom setting that is never utilized as well as it could be. There are countless tween and teen shows that use classrooms (and general school settings) to set scenes or ramp up some dramatic-classroom tension (see: Girl Meets World) but rarely do we get this same treatment in a sitcom that’s for – and focused on – adults. The comedies that have attempted this generally fell flat and were swiftly canceled, such as 2006’s NBC series Teachers (based on the UK program), 2014’s Bad Teacher (based on the film), or 2015’s NBC series Mr. Robinson (based on nothing but terribleness).
Sitcoms set in schools struggle with the balancing act between teachers and students (and the students pose an inherent problem – they change every year). Unlike an office or precinct setting, teachers tend to work separately from each other and rarely interact except in break rooms or briefly during lunch duty. It’s a difficult setup for a format that thrives when all characters have as many opportunities to interact directly as possible. But that hasn’t stopped two cable networks from trying, with mixed results.
This year, both truTV and TV Land – networks that, it should be noted, are still in the early-ish phases of rebranding themselves – debuted sitcoms revolved around a group of crass, ridiculous, white, bad-at-their-jobs teachers. truTV’s Those Who Can’t, which debuted on February 11th, focuses on three male high school teachers (and sometimes a woman librarian who exists seemingly as an afterthought). The general gist of the program is “Look at these teachers do things that teachers shouldn’t do!” Loren (Adam Cayton-Holland), a Spanish teacher focused on “The Queen’s Spanish,” mixes margaritas for his class; Billy (Ben Roy), a punk-turned-tattooed-history-teacher heads up a mission to score heroin in order to plant it in a school bully’s locker; Andy (Andrew Orvedahl), the requisite idiot gym teacher and butt of all gay jokes, does an unnecessary drug test and publicly informs a student that she’s pregnant.
The four episodes aired so far have all featured bland variations on those same jokes. In one episode, the teachers force a kid into a makeover and Lasik eye surgery in order to help him win a school election – all because they don’t like the teen girl he’s running against – resulting in the shy student becoming a little too cool. Yet the majority of the jokes revolve around Andy’s nut allergy and his two teacher friends tricking him into saying innuendo. It’s mildly funny the first or second time, but it quickly becomes irritating, much like the overall series itself. As the, sigh, hot librarian Abbey, Maria Thayer tries her best to mine laughs from terrible lines, but it’s mostly just a shame to watch her reduced to bits like scrubbing penises out of library books or using buzzwords like “mansplain” for no reason.
TV Land’s Teachers, in contrast, is much better. Unfortunately, that’s not saying too much; it still revolves around the same predictable “inappropriate teacher!” humor as Those Who Can’t. But it at least knows how to have fun that translates to the audience, whereas the three dudes in Those Who Can’t feel like they’re stuck in improv practice, only keen to make themselves laugh. Teachers is about six women elementary school teachers who bond and clash and generally screw things up when trying to teach. There are some funny moments – in “Picture Day,” a series of death-related mishaps keeps one teacher and her young students on their sad little toes, while “Hall of Shame” features Rob Corddry as a janitor in a clandestine relationship with one of the teachers. For the most part, however, there’s an overall feeling that Teachers could (and should) be better.
Like Those Who Can’t, there’s a blatant lack of diversity (Teachers has a sassy black school nurse in a later episode while Those Who Can’t relies on a sassy black secretary with an anger problem) and an over-reliance on the same tired “you shouldn’t do this in school!” bits. One episode has Chelsea (Katy Colloton) filming her audition tape for The Bachelor on school property and during school hours while another has Caroline (Kate Lambert) showing a slideshow of her ex-boyfriend’s Facebook photos to her class, asking the young kids to chime in on whether the girl with him looks like a new girlfriend or just friends. To Teachers credit, there are plenty of funny moments that pop up throughout the seven aired episodes so far, but overall each episode fails to really land. It doesn’t help that many of the teachers are a bit narrow and stereotypical; most of them obsess over men, and Mary Louise’s (Katie O’Brien) strict-Christian personality can come off as one-note.
Again, television has a rough history with teacher-centric sitcoms for a variety of reasons – it’s tough to fault either of these shows for not succeeding where many others have also fallen short. But it’s still disappointing that both shows went in what feels like the most obvious direction for the subject matter. There are real issues that plague classrooms, such as budget cuts, low salaries, and relating to students from various economic backgrounds. Not every episode has to focus on an Issue of The Week, but there’s certainly a way to combine some of the more serious aspects of teaching with humor, rather than eschewing all of that in favor of the low hanging fruit of teachers saying inappropriate things. We’ve seen that before, and it just doesn’t work.