That musty scent wafting from Bad Teacher, based on the raunchy 2011 film starring Cameron Diaz, is partly the product of mothballed cultural allusions and the odd tasteless joke. (The pilot’s needless gag about “some Asian teacher” named “Ming Ling Chung” is lifted straight from your racist uncle’s playbook.) But the show’s main offense is how little faith it places in its audience. Leached of the original’s tart sense of humor, the series quickly settles into lowest-common-denominator boilerplate, an unintended critique of the declining sitcom formula.
Starring Ari Graynor as gold-digging narcissist Meredith Davis, who accepts a job teaching social studies in order to land one of her students’ wealthy, divorced dads, Bad Teacher might be mistaken for parody were it not so damn earnest. Among the supporting players, several television stalwarts reprise schoolhouse versions of past roles, though the performances lack the wry, winking intelligence that might have made the series a commentary on the perils of typecasting. Far removed from the comic range he displayed on In Living Color, David Alan Grier, as Principal Carl Gaines, once again whines his way through the indignities of public service; replace the cheap suit with an officer’s uniform and Gaines is indistinguishable from hapless cop Carl Bentley, a role Grier played in Jumanji nearly 20 years ago. Kristin Davis’s uptight faculty president is Charlotte York without the cosmopolitans, and Sara Gilbert’s Irene is Leslie Winkle wearing Darlene Conner’s clothes.
Bad Teacher thus unspools as if created for an amnesiac, trafficking in material and characters that might have been funny 10 years ago. Meredith seems less a rebel than a relic, wearing leopard print and cheap leather stolen from the wardrobe departments of Clueless or Mean Girls and speaking in a ditzy, Valley Girl patois that is, as Cher Horowitz might say, so 1994. That the series fails to construct a universe even remotely relevant to the present is not itself a fatal flaw, but Bad Teacher scarcely seems to understand just how old-fashioned it is. Indeed, the sole acknowledgment of the outmoded style is also the only evidence of wit on display in the first few episodes: The school where Meredith teaches is named after Richard Nixon, and a cafeteria mural ironically shades images of the disgraced president—leering over a map of Southeast Asia, striking his iconic “V for Victory” pose—in the colors of a democratic hero.
Bad Teacher otherwise dulls the satirical bite of its predecessor with stock characters and a standard episodic arc. Where series co-producer Cameron Diaz played the film’s Elizabeth Halsey as a canny, bitchy bruiser, only feigning dumb when it suited her quest for a life of leisure, Meredith is an empty vessel framed as a fearless minx. If you laugh at all, it’s not with her, but at her. The narrative, such as it is, feels similarly timid: Meredith is greedy and self-obsessed; Meredith makes a ham-handed effort to marry rich or avoid work; Meredith glimpses a kid with a sad puppy face and feels guilty; Meredith turns out to be a homeroom teacher with a heart of gold after all. The effect of all this rote traditionalism is less zany than Xanax.