The second season of TVNZ on Demand satire Educators continues to skewer New Zealand’s school system, brilliantly and brutally.
Is there anything bleaker than a New Zealand high school? As local comedy Educators tells it, probably not. The show, created by Jesse Griffin, Jackie van Beek and Johnny Brugh, has returned for its second season on TVNZ on Demand to continue the tale of a middling public high school that is made no better by its equally middling, semi-deranged staff. It remains fruitful territory for a comedy: we’ve all been to school, we all probably hated it, and we can all relate to a cast of characters who hate it, regardless of what side of the desk they’re on.
The second season gets even darker than the first, with one teacher harbouring a bizarre crush on a student and another student having to attend school alongside her father (much funnier than it sounds). Being a largely improvised show, it lives and dies on its cast. There’s not a single likeable character in the show – even the students walk a fine line between sympathetic and annoying as hell – so the ensemble has to work extra hard to keep the audience invested. If we’re laughing it’s a lot less of a concern that we don’t actually care if these people live or die.
While Educators is an ensemble show, Jackie van Beek is undoubtedly the star. As Robyn Duffy, who spends the entire season living illegally in the school’s infirmary, van Beek takes every joke and absolutely runs with it. Then she does another lap. Any show revolving around terrible people needs a solid centre, and van Beek provides this by making Robyn the most consistently reprehensible participant in any given situation. If a child reports an injury on school camp, she’ll be the one bribing them to not report it. Indeed, one of her earliest actions this season is to start shredding documents when she discovers the school is under review. Every show needs a soul, and while Educators absolutely does not have one, van Beek’s Robyn substitutes a glass of chardonnay and an ashtray where a soul should be. It’s one of the best comic performances I’ve seen on TV in quite some time, even more remarkable because van Beek is also firing off punchlines like a machine gun.
Even though van Beek is the glue that holds Educators together there’s not a weak link among the group. Kura Forrester nearly matches van Beek for magnetism as drama teacher Judy, pregnant for the entire second season and determined to star in the school production that is, yes, about her pregnancy (said production is the absolute highlight of the season and rings painfully true). Everyone gets their moment though, whether it’s Olivia Parker as type-A student Georgina or Yvette Parsons as the slightly batty receptionist Sheree. It’s a show where the cast is asked to do some heavy lifting, and they answer with a resounding “hell yes”.
Credit has to go to the team behind the camera – particularly director Griffin, director of photography Ryan Heron and editor Stuart Boone – for the show’s consistency. As with any improvised show, they no doubt had a massive amount of footage to work with, but Educators never feels stitched together. In fact, it often feels tighter than some of our fully scripted shows. It’s a great demonstration of how clarity of concept and purpose – and a cast who are fully clued into both – can do wonders for a show.
If I have one thing to pick at, it’s a wish that the show was more targeted in its satire of the public school system; its consistent underfunding and the way it risks draining the humanity from anybody stuck in it, student and teacher alike. More so than the first season, this one is about the characters and their struggles within the system, rather than their struggles against it. It’s a subtle shift, and while it might make for a funnier show, it limits how much the show stays with the viewer after the credits roll. It might be for the best, though. Despite the stylistic similarities, Educators isn’t The Thick of It, and its relatively thin premise might struggle to shoulder truly weighty satire. But it’s a demonstration that this creative trio could take that leap if the desire was there. The cast is certainly game enough for it.
But in the meantime – and lord, this show deserves a third season and a healthy streaming life – it’s more than enough to watch some of New Zealand’s funniest actors dig their teeth into our darkest comedy.
The second season of Educators is available on TVNZ on Demand now. Episodes drop weekly on Wednesday.