Pop Culture

‘Teachers’ earns passing grade

“Teachers,” premiering Tuesday on NBC, is a workplace comedy in which the workplace is, more or less, irrelevant. The students are mostly atmosphere, and based on the premiere and one other episode made available for review, stories are more about courtship and camaraderie than curriculum and classes.

That’s not a knock against the show. Medical issues are mostly an afterthought on “Scrubs” (which precedes “Teachers”), but that hasn’t made it any less witty or entertaining.

“Teachers” is no “Scrubs,” at least for now, but it has potential. The leads are likable, attractive and work well together. The supporting cast is a talented bunch as well and endearingly eccentric. The pilot script from Matt Tarses, though not particularly emotionally engaging, is definitely more than just a collection of jokes.

The biggest drawback is its conventional four-camera look. Few people can pilot a sitcom better than director James Burrows, but it is getting harder and harder to win viewers with shows that, stylistically, look so familiar. Ironically, the initial plan was to make a hybrid show that mixed single-camera footage with studio audience scenes. The British series, on which this show is loosely based, is a single-camera, hourlong production. The NBC show changed course, though, and sacrificed a more modern look for instant feedback or audience energy or whatever reason is customarily given for sticking with the conventional.

At the center of “Teachers” is Jeff (Justin Bartha), an easygoing, spirited English teacher who is equal parts entertainer and instructor. His best friend, Calvin (Deon Richmond), is a former actor who teaches theater at the school. Then there is Alice (Sarah Alexander, whose career survived NBC’s version of Britcom “Coupling” and is gamely having another go at it), a goody-two-shoes teacher who spends most of her time outside the classroom fending off Jeff’s advances. In the opener, Tina (Sarah Shahi) comes to the school as a sub and quickly attracts Jeff’s attention.

Following an unspoken law of sitcoms, something happens to characters over 30 and annoying and/or irrational behavior takes hold. Examples in “Teachers” are the perpetually smiling principal Emma Wiggins (Kali Rocha), the brown-nosing math teacher Mitch (Matt Winston) and disinterested, wisecracking Dick (irrepressible radio host Phil Hendrie), who fears work above all else.

Friendly advice from the neighborhood TV critic: Sexual tension between Jeff and Alice fuels much of the comedy and must be maintained, even if it means foregoing that very special hooking up episode during a future sweep period. Apart from that, it would be nice for Jeff to be a little less callow, for Alice to be a little less prim and for the cast, at least occasionally, to use students and books as more than props.

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