From Script to Screen: Why TV Land's 'Teachers' Wants Women to Be Their Unapologetic Selves (Exclusive)
By Philiana Ng
The scenes you remember from your favorite television shows don’t often start out that way. From conception to the page to the small screen, changes are made for creative, budgetary and/or time constraints that you’re often not aware of. In the From Script to Screen series, we break down a pivotal scene from the current TV season with the people who put pen to paper, to give us an exclusive inside look at how an original idea transforms into a memorable TV moment.
It’s rare when a television show created by women, starring women and written almost entirely by women (only two episodes so far were written by men) makes it to the small screen, much less strikes lightning in a bottle. That’s exactly what Teachers, TV Land’s little-seen comedy about an eclectic, politically incorrect and often NSFW group of teachers in a Chicago-area elementary school is doing on a weekly basis in its second season.
Created by and starring the six-member female improv group The Katydids, the low-budget series leans into the humor behind the everyday mundanity of elementary teachers’ lives with a heightened emphasis on the outrageous, bizarre and just plain awkward. From a liberal, self-proclaimed activist to a narcissistic playgirl, the characters are all so vastly different that the comedy stems from the diverse perspectives and R-rated opinions that oftentimes don’t mesh. Even when their differences create conflict and they do unconscionable things, the women always come back together in the end. For co-creators and stars Kathryn Renee Thomas and Katie O’Brien, that’s exactly what they set out to do with Teachers, which mirrors the real-life dynamic they share with their Katydids partners-in-crime.
“It’s kind of a bizarre group of friends, where you’re not quite sure that if these people met in the real world they would even talk to each other. They can be mean to each other, they can be intense,” Thomas, who plays the antisocial Deb Adler, tells ET of the six core characters at the forefront of the show (Caitlin Barlow, Katy Colloton, Cate Freedman and Kate Lambert play the others). “One thing we always pride ourselves on is that they are, in the end, friends and they all really do care about each other and also tell each other when they’re being a**holes.”
One particular scene from last Tuesday’s episode, titled “Let It Flow,” illustrates just that fact. It’s a moment that features two of the teachers, hopeless romantic Caroline Watson (Lambert) and Adler, apologizing and making up in a twisted kind of way. The scene wasn’t in the original script and featured the most changes (see the annotated script pages below), but Thomas and O’Brien, who co-wrote the episode, felt it was crucial enough to add to progress Watson and Adler’s relationship. “We never want it to seem like these women hate each other,” O’Brien says, adding that while Teachers can get raunchy, it's ultimately “about friendship.” “It’s important for us to highlight real life and not make anything a stereotype and make sure these characters learn and evolve. At their core, they’re friends and we want to make sure it stays that way and it doesn’t turn into a stereotypical catfight.”
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Being friends off-screen for 10 years has served Thomas, O’Brien and their cohorts well -- and it shows on screen. Though there’s an element of dramatization when it comes to their respective characters, Thomas and O’Brien confess that each of their Teachers alter egos are, in a nutshell, versions of themselves, including the unlikable parts. “When we created these characters, we all took a little piece of ourselves, who we are or who we used to be,” Thomas says, sharing that she was a “goth wannabe” and O’Brien was uber-religious during their high school days. “We took those characters of ourselves and blew them up, heightened them to a crazy place. They are pieces of ourselves because we, as the Katydids, have worked. It’s a testament to people who are very different from each other being able to live in this world where they’re friends and sisters.”
What sets Teachers apart from other comedies, aside from the heavy female presence in front of and behind the camera (“It’s [literally] a female-powered show,” O’Brien says), is its fearlessness in depicting everyday women as fully-formed, foul-mouthed females with often horrific intentions, questionable motivations and impolite manners. (An early season two episode, for instance, featured a character choosing drugs over having a healthy romantic relationship.) “We are, admittedly, garbage people,” O’Brien says with a laugh, of the show’s risqué nature. “We’ve been shocked at what’s gotten through. We’ve pushed the line and TV Land has come back and been like, ‘Push it further.’”
One particular line from a future episode springs to mind for O’Brien. It features a character referring to her ex-husband in a rather unexpected way. “She says, ‘This man took a fist for me and that’s more than I can say for a lot of men’ -- talking about fisting,” O’Brien says, adding that they’re also extremely strategic when it comes to using their one allocated “sh*t” per episode. Thomas revealed that a plotline from the current season, about “a serial pooper,” was pitched for two years before making it to the screen. “So many teachers we talked to said there’s always a kid who poops all over the school but not the toilet,” she says. “A) We think poop is hilarious because, like O’Brien said, we’re garbage people. But B) it’s real. We pushed and pushed and pushed, and finally [TV Land] was like, ‘OK, you can do this.’ I think we did it artistically and not for [shock value].”
See Thomas and O’Brien’s notes from the script for last week’s episode below, detailing the many changes and cuts that were made for TV.
Looking ahead to the rest of the second season and beyond (the ladies are currently filming season three), Thomas and O’Brien reveal that the show continues to zero in on feminist themes through the lens of Teachers’ “weird, filthy” branded humor.
The sophomore finale is one “we’re excited for everybody to see,” O’Brien teases, adding that the episode is partially shot in black and white, and sees the cast slipping into 1940s costumes. “We deal with a really feminist issue that hasn’t changed much since the 1940s. It was fun to play with the idea that, even though it seems like a long time ago, some things haven’t changed that much.” Thomas says this season especially, they’ve “tackled” women issues with more urgency, pointing to an episode about gender bias in education where a teacher realizes she favors the boys in her class in math and science.
“In a lot of TV, I feel like there’s gotta be a lesson or a change in the characters and we do try to do that to an extent. But the thing is, a lot of humans don’t change or they don’t learn or they don’t apologize for who they are. I think we find a good balance of showing imperfect people who make mistakes and apologize when they’re being heinous, but also are who they are. There’s a trend in comedy where there are really unlikable people and sometimes it works brilliantly,” Thomas observes, crediting Veep for being a prime example. “There’s a delicate balance of making someone real and imperfect and not always likable, but you’re also rooting for them. We try to do that with Teachers.”
Teachers airs its final episode of the year on Tuesday, Dec. 19 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on TV Land, before resuming season two on Tuesday, Jan. 2.