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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

TV Review: SBS Drama Series: The Principal (October 2015)

Episode 1

The Principal is an intense and well crafted drama. In the dramatic opening two men in hoddies violently struggle & one is slashed in the stomach with box-cutters & dies. The episode then flashes back to two weeks before when the new principal, Matt Bashir is driving to his new job at Boxdale Boys High. What follows is a who-done-it crime story with plenty of contemporary social commentary extremely relevant to multi-cultural Australia.

Matt Bashir, like Mark Thackeray (Sidney Poitier) in To Sir With Love, sees himself as “a sucker” for a challenge. As the new principal of the notorious Boxdale Boys High, in Sydney’s South-West, he wants to pull the students into line & to "make a difference." On his first day on the job, Bashir meets the students at the school gate and unsuccessfully attempts to shake any of their hands. One student, later identified as a central character in the series, Tarek Ahmad, crudely asks him, "Who the fuck are you?" Non-plussed, in a spirit of reconciliation, Bashir responds, "I'm the new principal." 

Bashir has grown up in the area "ten minutes away"and was once a student at the school and therefore has some cred. In this episode he is calm & measured in his dealings with students & staff and is certainly genuine in promoting community support in advancing the needs of the school and its students.

The high school is like a prison: barbed-wire, security cameras, strict rules. Bashir perhaps over sensationalises the situation by declaring during a staff meeting that, "This place is a war zone." The series tends to position him as some kind of messiah, as someone who knows better than everyone else but who will try to take the community with him to enhance the future of his students. 

This series is a work of fiction but appears to have all the hallmarks of initially fictionalising the aspirational narrative of Jihad Dib: the outstanding ex-principal of Punchbowl Boys High who was recently elected into the NSW Legislative Assembly as an ALP representative for Lakemba:

Alex Dimitriades plays a highly credible role as the street smart and compassionate principal. In his first staff meeting he is explicit & hyperbolic in his goals: “This is our last chance to turn this place around. Give me two weeks and I’ll make a difference.” After the students begin to respect him & shake his hand at the school gate, Bashir calls a P&C meeting & urgently states his call to arms: “This school is in crisis. Sitting on the fence is only going to mean one thing: A sore ass.”

Rahel Romahn as the wild-eyed, intensely angry Tarek Admad is the student from hell. After the sudden death of mother, he struggles to deal with his feelings & takes it out on the school. He causes much misery in his Food Tech class.

Not exactly the terrible tragedy we are presently seeing unfold in a Parramatta school in Sydney:, but perhaps as cautionary. We find some parallels such as disaffected, alienated youth and the disillusionment with authority- but the religious bent of extremism is only briefly touched on in the series. 

Episode 2

This episode is tightly cut and the plotline is furthered on many fronts. The story returns to the present after an extended flashback to events as they unfolded two weeks before with the appointment of the new principal, Mr Bashir. We learn that the student who has been killed is Karim Ahmed, Tarek's older brother. Most of this episode is focussed on
 whodunnit? in the thorough police investigation which ensues lead by the brash Detective Bilic (Aden Young). A number of people are questioned, including Tarek, Karim's father Mohammed, the Tuckshop lady, the young teacher GeorgeKaridis, the mute Somalian Kenny, Sisi- Karim's arch-enemy and the school executive. 

The acting by the young inexperienced boys is highly credible, culturally sensitive and engaging. Tarek keeps a surprisingly subdued mood for most of this episode. But when Sisi is returned to class by the deputy a fight breaks out & in the chaos Mr Karidis is accidentally punched in the nose by Tarek. More seriously, when Tarek sees Sisi's girlfriend Lucinda wearing his deceased mother's necklace, he loses it. When Sisi returns to school the next day he finds police forensic officers attending to his burnt-out car & an all out war is in the making between the middle-Eastern and Islander students.

The principal continues to build bridges to engage the students and community in creating a more positive culture for the school. He is transparent in his communications and he wants to keep everyone on-side- the local businesses (the butcher), the police, parents and students. Bashir takes the history class of a colleague and he is shown to be a compassionate teacher who knows how to create off the cuff a relevant, intensely meaningful lesson based on the student's own knowledge and experiences. Students are now shaking Bashir's hand at the school gate and he has symbolically dismantled some of the steel bars which encircle the school.

The representation & in particular the judgment of the principal loses some of its glimmer in this episode. Bashir is hell-bent at returning the students to class the day after the body is found on the school premises so as to not disrupt their education despite serious community concerns. 

Later he inappropriately accepts a young female cop's offer to have a drink with him at the posh hotel The Roosevelt after a hugely traumatic day. There is small talk about the girl who accused him of inappropriate conduct at his last school. He wanted to hold her to comfort her about a home matter but she felt betrayed and told his principal that he touched her. Bahir's saintliness finally implodes at the conclusion of the episode when he returns to the hotel & wordlessly meets a guy in the washroom & then they begin to savagely kiss before they disappear into a toilet cubicle where presumably they bang away.

The representation of the deputy-principal Ursula Bright is another annoying low in the series. She is depicted as incompetent, vindictive, culturally oblivious, stupid, judgmental & intolerant. I suppose such deputies exist, but why thump us viewers over the head with the unsubtleties of this perspective? I suppose she represents the wall that Bashir must face largely alone.

Overall, this episode is intricately stitched together and after a second viewing emotionally satisfying. The principal is inspiring and positive in his key-note speeches but the threat of savage irrational violence is never far away. Bashir's gay fling is unprepared for and genuinely surprising, but adds another modern perspective for the series to explore. 


This episode opens dramatically with the ritualistic Muslim cleansing of Karim's body for burial. The chanting and the accompanying music intensify the experience for the audience. We learn that Karim had been involved in gang activity- "drugs, extortion, guns, sexual assault- whatever they want because nobody will ever press charges." In a significant development Tarik buys a gun from the gang and looks like he is prepared to use it.

This is a complicated episode which advances several story strands, including- the conflict between Tarek and Sisi, the relationship between Kellie Norton, the Police Liason Officer and the Principal and the police investigation into Karim's murder. The continuity of the series is severely compromised by the ads which appear in four extended blocks during the show. Thanks to the recent ex-PM Abbott’s cuts to the SBS, the broadcaster has been given the green light to double the time allocated to ads per hour. So just when you thought you were getting back into the series, another swag of 4 ads belts you 3 times during program.

The principal, Mr Bashir's integrity is seriously called into question in this episode. He is seen comforting the boys during Karim’s funeral and when he is spotted in the school’s CCTV footage he is suspected by the police of abusing an African refugee pupil, Kenny Marondo. At the end of the episode is taken to the station by detectives for questioning.

We also meet Claire, Matt’s Bashir rich ex-wife who tells the cops that “Matt would never let me in. He never got over the death of his friend in high school. He just ran.” When the police visit the dead boy’s mother, Mrs Leadworthy, there is a strong suggestion that the boys had a sexual relationship.

I guess that Alice Addison, the writer of the show, is trying to make us think that due to Matt’s homosexual proclivities, that he is also a pedaphile. Remember he was accused of inappropriate contact with  a girl at his previous school. In this episode he is seen hanging around a public toilet and again rejects Kellie’s advances. I think these are red-herrings. He should come clean.

The only redeeming action by the principal is badly handled. When Tarek arrives at school off his face on ice and tells his cooking teacher “to fuck off faggot,” he takes him to the hospital, partly to avoid a police interrogation and record. The following day Bashir calls an assembly & tells the boys bluntly, “I won’t have any more drugs in my school.” He further tells them to get whatever drugs they have and put them in the bin which has been placed next to him on the ground. This drug amnesty is rash and naïve attempt to quell his desperate rage. Bashir movingly says to his deputy, “Tarek is symptomatic of everything that is wrong in this school. If we can’t help him, then we don’t have a fucking hope in hell!”

After he leaves the school, he approaches a middle-eastern gang of suspected drug dealers and foolishly tells them, “I don’t want your drugs anywhere near my kids. If you give as much as a panadol to any of them, I’ll make it my business that you don’t have one.” The leader of the gang is miffed but threatening, “You have a death wish or something?” I guess in the final episode tomorrow, the principal’s feud with the gang will predominate in the climax.

Episode 4

This episode is an effective and emotional satisfying conclusion to the series. It is the best episode of the 4 and it is good in the way it ties together many of the stories but leaves some stuff still dangling.

Much of the earlier part of the show deals with the intense police questioning of the principal by Detective Bilic (Aden Young). He tries to clarify Bashir’s involvement in a variety of incidents outlined in previous episodes- the accusation of improper conduct with a female student at Lakehurst High, what he knew about the events which lead up to the suicide of his high school friend Chris Leadworthy, after viewing his CCTV image- why he was at the school two weeks before the student Karim’s death and of course, how could he account for the hour after he was filmed at the school.

Bashir is an intensely protective of his personal life but his darker secrets eventually emerge. Detective Bilic is direct, “You can’t bury who you are no matter how you try?” The School Liason Officer, Kellie finds intimate photos of Matt & Chris & the cops knowingly pass their judgment. Tragically, Bahir confesses that he stood by and watched his mate being badly beaten by five bullies, Matt just stood & watched fearing he too would be bashed if he interfered. Afterwards, he told Chris he had no feelings for him and two weeks later Chris hanged himself.

Bashir is also humiliated to admit that he stopped at a park at Riverstone where he had anonymous sex with a man in a public toilet. After Kellie sees the adolescent photos of Chris & Matt in bathing suits she tells Matt, You’re fucking gay. Face up to it.”

In the meantime, the regional manager of the department known as Deano threatens to close down the school, “Otherwise,” he crassly says to the school’s deputy, the department will look like a limp dick.” In confidence, he concludes, “No one thought he’d seriously succeed.”

The inexperienced Food Tech teacher Mr Karidis is usually at the blunt end of Tarik’s venom & has no idea how to deal with the serious conflict in his classroom. After Tarik’s meth freak-out, he bans Tarik’s participation in the work experience program with the deputy’s approval.

The show now bolts headlong to its conclusion. The angry Tarik grabs his passport & purchases a pistol from the local crims. A relative finds a scrapbook of newspaper articles related to the recruitment of foreigners for extremist ends. Remember he previously spent time in a Syrian migrant camp.  

The viewers on the edge of their seats wondering who Tarik wants to target. Sisi?Westerners? The principal? His hopeless Food Tech teacher George Karidis? His father Mohammed? The climax is unpredictable but well prepared for as events click into place.

The Principal: Behind the Scenes: