The artistic life as an episode of a cable dramedy with little consequence
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Director Craig Zisk has the equivalent of a Ph.D. in TV, with a post-graduate feature film project capping off his studied efforts. There are the single episodes of “Entourage” and “The Office” back in 2006 and 2007, respectively, six installments of “Scrubs” before that and four shots at “Alias.” But all of that was little more than undergraduate coursework, setting the stage for a 20-episode run with “Weeds,” from 2005-2008, and a solid run with “United States of Tara,” which looks like a dissertation in the form.
Writing and directing for television now seems like the more practical application of academics that we used to assume was the providence of film. The small screen wasn’t where the serious storytellers plied their craft, but the rise of premium cable shows – with their novelistic chapter breakdowns of ongoing narratives full of challenging anti-heroes and darkly complex social commentary – has upended audience expectations and the thinking of artists on both sides of the camera.
With “The English Teacher” (arriving on DVD Sept. 2), Zisk attempts to adhere to the more traditional approach, taking all of the lessons he has learned working in television and unleashing them on the larger canvas like one of those earlier cross-over trailblazers from back in the day.
Linda (Julianne Moore), his protagonist-as-type, is a 40-something high school English teacher, a romantic spinster just waiting for something or someone to drag her out of the quiet confines of her mind into the messy melodrama that is “real” life. The change agent arrives in the form of young Jason (Michael Angarano), a former student, a would-be rising star who dared to fly away from the cozy environs of their sleepy Pennsylvania community to the bright lights of New York City, where he studied playwriting and dreamed of off-Broadway presentations of his work.
Come back, young Jason, to reality. Come back home into the welcoming arms of Linda and an eccentric drama teacher (Nathan Lane) who dare to put on his unproduced gem with a high school cast – for a script that is decidedly not high school material, from what we are told – led by a young ingénue (Lily Collins) with the usual hormonal designs of her age. And let’s not forget that Jason must have a doctor dad (Greg Kinnear) who just doesn’t understand him the way that Linda does.
There’s little art in this presentation, this imitation of the small-screen form, and even fewer surprises in what could have been a unique and twisted take on art and relationships. The dangerous dynamic between not just a former teacher-student coupling mixed with the jealousy of an older, naïve woman in competition with a current student in the no-longer-private world of social media barely contains all of the explosive potential inherent in the premise, but there’s an oppressive sense, indeed, a fear of opening the door to such notions.
We are told that Jason’s play stirs the passions of everyone who reads it. Linda gets shocked out of her ideal romantic complacency, the drama teacher dreams of re-living his bohemian artistic days in New York and the school’s administration wants nothing more than to put the kibosh on things and go back to another rendition of “Our Town.”
Yet, when the inevitable complications arise, Zisk – and his screenwriters Dan Chariton and Stacy Chariton – retreat to the familiar rhythms of episodic fare, the turning of a blind eye towards all that has been laid bare. Who needs to address consequences, right?
Welcome back to the small-minded frames of the 1950s, everyone.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com.