I’ve decided to do some blogging about teachers and schooling as they are portrayed on television and in film and I’m starting things off with The Principal, an Australian drama series in four parts, that was released in October and can now be found on Netflix.
The series is a crime drama that stars Alex Dimitriades as Matt Bashir, a history teacher and former Deputy at a prestigious girls’ school who takes on the position of Principal at Boxdale Boys School in South West Sydney, which is known for it’s troubled history. It is also the school he attended as a teen and in the neighborhood where he was born and raised.
The series starts off as many of the “savior coming to redeem the trouble youth” as we see in films like To Sir with Love and Lean on Me (and even a bit of Dead Poets Society). Bashir is making progress and working to relate to the boys and the neighborhood. He brings the community into the school and wants to turn things around, working to gain the trust of teachers, students, and the community. But, when a student is found dead on the school grounds at the end of the first episode, we are left with questions as to whether or not Bashir has made any progress and wonder who the boy’s murderer is among the community.
In the second episode, Aden Young (best known for portraying Daniel Holder in Rectify) enters as Detective Adam Bilic who is determined to solve the murder. Although Bilic helps move the action along and bring an outsider into the fold, the series’ strength lie within the layers found in the relationships between the players in the school and community.
The setting of South West Sydney leads to a richness of boys at the school from Syrian, Lebanese, African, and Anglo, the murder happens within the midst of Ramadan where the Muslim students talk of fasting and feast and the tension among religious and ethnic groups is readily apparent. Added in the mix are struggles with gangs, violence, drugs, and religious supremacy, The Principal hits on a number of different issues and the complexities of attempting to separate things into boxes.
Bashir’s character is no saint. From the beginning of the series, writers Kristen Dunphy and Alice Addison have weaved together complex story arches that bridge a teenage Bashir’s past to his present role as Principal in a school that holds a dark history and secret for him. Director Kriv Stenders does an excellent job of giving the audience elements of the stories that come together in the final episode as we learn who from the cast of characters committed the murder and why. Stenders starts with washed out visuals—a yellow darkness around Bashir that contrasts the stark color and flashiness we see in the the boy’s cars and lives. Bashir remains surrounded by the darkness—running at night, haunted by memories and nightmares—that add to our connection to him.
Mirrah Foulkes plays Kellie Norton, the Police Liaison Officer for the school who is quietly works to find out what happened on the school grounds. It is Norton’s sleuthing and relationship with the youth that ultimately gets to the heart of the crimes—both present and past.
We watch Bashir work closely to form relationships with the youth, especially Tarek Ahmed (Rahel Romahn), whose brother was the murder victim. Ahmed and his brother are being raised by their single father after their mother’s death. Ahmed’s anger seems to stem from his anger about his mother’s death, while his murdered brother’s involvement with drugs and gangs seems to be central to his demise.
The young men who are the heart of this series add a diversity to that is rarely seen in American television and one that drew me in. I appreciated the grittiness of their work and their strong performances.
Although I struggle with some of the repetition of themes in The Principal—the savior in the community, the Deputy Principal who wants law and order and mistrust of Bashir’s new ideas, the move to be tough on drugs, yet believing that there is a spark of goodness and hope in each boy—the ways in which the series chooses to deal with history and religion and redemption make it worth the watch.
I appreciate how the series moves between a complicated notions of masculinity, education and schooling, family and friends. Plus, in the end, it’s a great mystery which keeps you guessing after each episode and second-guessing yourself until the end.