Film

The Principal (SBS TV) makes Dangerous Minds look like Kindergarten Cop

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Alex Dimitriades confronts classrooms of renegade multicultural youth as the titular textbook-wielding warrior in The Principal, a new SBS four-part drama based in and around an all-boys Sydney high school where drugs, crime and violence are as common as pens and paper.

Or perhaps that should read “textbook destroying.” His character, former history teacher Matt Bashir, has studied from the same inspirational books as Morgan Freeman from Lean on Me or Michelle Pfeiffer from Dangerous Minds — a role model determined to teach the curriculum by first upturning it.
Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society memorably inspired his students by getting them to stand on top of their desks to experience life from a different perspective. Try a cheesy stunt like that at Boxdale Boys High, the central location in The Principal, and the students are likely to stab each other on their way back to the ground.
It is a notoriously violent place and Bashir, once a student there, is warned the previous principal ended up in the funny farm. Not long transpires — about five minutes of running — before he delivers his first pep talk, to a tough crowd of seen-and-heard-it-before colleagues.
“This place is a war zone. Student numbers are at an all-time low. Results are way below the state average. The department has been gunning to close this place down but instead they took a risk and hired me,” he says.
The reaction is hostile. One teacher bitterly observes that the department hasn’t been able to fix a busted doorknob in 18 months, so what chance do they have of repairing the entire school? Bashir asks for two weeks to make a difference.
So far, so familiar. Directed by Kriv Stenders (Red Dog, Kill Me Three Times), The Principal begins as a well-made entry into a familiar curriculum about inspirational teachers changing the world one classroom at a time. Bashir greets students at the front gate, creates a community support group and changes daily timetables so teachers have more time to focus on meaningful interactions.
There are indications the series is pitched at something greater, from the stylish mustard-yellow grading of Geoffrey Hall’s cinematography to the cast’s intensely focused performances. And indeed, AWGIE-nominated writers Kristen Dunphy and Alice Addison steer it to special places, driving plotlines further and further away from boilerplate genre into dynamic unpredictable drama.
The first episode is a neat scene-setter, effective in establishing the central location and the primary players including student Tarek (Rahel Romahn) who will form a key role in the story.
Positive outcomes quickly amount to false hope. Things start to look slightly brighter following a productive community meeting, then bam: a student is found dead on school grounds.
The Principal shifts into crime mystery/drama, a sort of upper crust CSI-into-the-classroom where suspects are gradually scrutinised and the plot begins to snake, curl and recalibrate. If you think you’ve sat through this story before, you haven’t. Not a chance.
One adrenaline-pumping scene shrewdly uses the school environment to ratchet up suspense. When the body is discovered staff understand if students find it, violent confrontation will follow. A teacher runs to disable the bell to prevent students flowing into the playground; Bashir cries out “we need to keep the Middle Eastern kids away from the Islanders”.
The first two episodes, which aired Wednesday and Thursday, are available to watch via SBS on Demand and the final two play next week. The writing is bold and interesting in ways that cannot be explained in detail without jeopardising some of the surprises, suffice to say the complete package is so well thought out it feels reminiscent in the best possible way of the American ‘writers room’ approach, where groups of people spend weeks brainstorming what happens next for high-end shows like Breaking Bad.
There are changes in focus and character-oriented revelations that give The Principal a sense it is constantly shifting and morphing. As the story is propelled forward the show is also slowly revealing what it is actually about, which makes for a thrilling cocktail — an excitement that seems to exist in the space between what we know and what we’re about to discover.
Alex Dimitriades is perfect in the lead role, bringing real heft and gravitas. Perhaps his character’s passageway from former student to principal is aided by the audience distantly remembering him studying in the classroom himself, in his breakthrough role in 1993’s The Heartbreak Kid (and spinoff series Heartbreak High).
The actor has a rich history of roles that explore multiculturalism and sexuality. The Principal is right at the top of the list: a school of hard knocks drama that makes Dangerous Minds look like Kindergarten Cop.

10 responses to “The Principal (SBS TV) makes Dangerous Minds look like Kindergarten Cop

  1. I’m not in education but I’m enjoying it a lot. One weird thing, the high school I went to 45 years ago, always had blown sand and dirt on the concrete paths. I could hear the sound of shoes on sand on concrete as they walked to the body. My high had a post war mix, Italians, Greeks, Poles, Germans, Yugoslavs and an Albanian who got to go to the library during religious instruction every Thursday morning. I remember being very jealous of him as I had to sit through 40 minutes of doom and gloom from some ancient clergyman. Still I suppose he had to go to the Mosque on Friday night.

  2. This is A1 drama, about time we got a TV series with faces that are not dominated by typical anglo faces. Proves we have plenty of worthwhile actors who can play roles of characters from a non English background within stories that are not atypical of many suburbs within our capital cities that have a dominant mixture of migrants living in them.

  3. D’ya think? I think it’s clunky and cliched larded with a fair bit of tragic overacting.
    Also, Luke (and, to be fair, many others): please humour me and look up the correct meaning of titular; it doesn’t mean what you think it means. The word you want is eponymous. Not as easy as titular, I’ll grant you, but worth the effort.
    Brought to you by PT: trying to save the world, one little piece of enlightenment at a time.

    1. The word ‘titular’ is used correctly by the writer. The title of the work is The Principal, Alex is the Principal, hence Alex is the titular character.
      I think the show is very, very good. One more episode to go at the time of writing.

  4. Have to agree with PT. Do the lead characters in Aussie dramas always have to look like models? Aden Young must have been watching the Crawford Production Homicide DVD collection, more ham than a salad roll. And we get that the deputy is off-side, no need to put it on with a trowel.
    Second tier actors commendable, apart from those Islander bikies who would be expelled from the Comancheros in about 5 milliseconds.

  5. I enjoy this series but must say it is a bit ‘soapie’ in parts, particularly the relationship between the detective and the policewoman. I loved Aden Young in the dram ‘Rectify’ and was very surprised to see him in this series.

  6. I gotta say Luke, you’re pretty much the only critic that can actually motivate me to watch something (there are still plenty who can motivate me NOT to).
    Our tastes have been aligned on most of the stuff you’ve reviewed in he past couple of months and I give you credit for getting me and my wife to the cinema recently to see what is now the best movie I have seen in years (Kurzels Macbeth adaptation), so I’m definitely binging these two eps when I get home tonight, and I don’t care if the bachelorette is on or not, you hear me woman?

  7. Australian screenwriters please look further afield to further your education. This series is cliche after exaggerated cliche so evident in our Australian movies. There is no way we measure up to the European drama that keeps us on edge until the next showing. The cast shows us our limited circle of actors…we see them again and again and again.
    Please, drama writers, don’t be taken in by biased ABC/SBS reviews. Explore the world and see how limited your view is and how unexciting your writing is. Summary for performance: vast improvement required.
    All round failure for this show and profound disappointment.

  8. I think Mr. Buckmaster is spot on. The Principal is top notch production. Among the best writing and acting from down under to make it to US. Such a shame to get these great characters and threads just blow with the sand. C/Should have been many more episodes.

  9. I really enjoyed the first episode of The Principal and I’ll definitely continue watching it. As one currently studying education I want to bring up the student-teacher, teacher-teacher communication. The changes a respectfull and appreciative manner of speaking can create was greatly demonstrated and (as a basic principle) should be put to heart by anyone. We all often forget, how important it is ‘how’ we speak and with what appreciation we face another person. Current studies on well-being also show, that sometimes just some nice, supporting words might change more than any disciplinary actions taken.

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