A NEW principal is appointed to a troubled and violent western Sydney high school.
Doesn’t sound like an earth shattering story.
However the four-part series on SBS, The Principal, is easily the stand-out new Australian
drama of the year.
It’s authentic, gritty and absolutely compelling.
That Alex Dimitriades leads a top cast is part of that appeal. He’s one of those actors who can, to butcher the cliché, draw us in even if filmed just watching paint dry.
In The Principal he plays a self-confessed workaholic principal appointed to Boxdale High, a school in a part of Sydney simmering with tension.
Students have Islander, Middle Eastern and African heritage and in Matt Bashir’s first days he confronts everything from gang violence, burnt-out cars, a cow’s head left in the foyer and a bomb threat.
Bashir is determined to make a difference.
“This place is a war zone. This is our last chance to turn this place around,” he tells his staff.
“Give me two weeks to make a difference.”
The embattled, cynical and burnt-out staff don’t believe him – at first.
The bitter deputy principal Ursula Bright in particular (Di Adams) puts hurdles in his way at every turn, even complaining to the Education Department about his decisions.
However a cautious optimism sneaks in. Parents actually turn up for the P&C meeting; police liaison officer Kellie Norton (Mirrah Foulkes) introduces a boxing class for some of the more unruly boys.
But trouble is ahead for Boxdale and for its new, optimistic principal.
A student is found murdered on school grounds. Detective Bilic (Aden Young) investigates, while the media spotlight puts pressure on Bashir.
What makes The Principal so intensely fascinating is that at its core this is a story about human behaviour and relationships.
The writers break it down to us through Tarek Ahmed (Rahel Romahn). His family is Syrian and he and his brother are raised by their father while mourning their dead mother.
When he gets into trouble in the cooking class, there’s a fascinating scene where Bashir ignores the incident and instead focuses on what Tarek has cooked.
“You’re a good cook,” he says. “Have you thought about what you might like to do after school?”
“Centrelink,” Tarek replies.
When Tarek’s father despairingly tells the principal he’s lost his son, Bashir assures him he hasn’t. Did he know Tarek could cook?
Later that night, as his sons eat, the father quietly smokes a cigarette. “Apparently you’re a good cook,” he muses to Tarek. “Like your mother.” The father smiles slowly, nodding.
There’s this quiet moment of approval. We sense perhaps most conversations of late have been about the son getting in trouble. These few words are somehow healing.
Later we see Tarek clutching the photograph of his mother to his breast, sobbing.
He’s real to us now, not just one of those trouble making kids.
There are also delicious layers to Bashir. We learn he went to this school as a boy. There’s some history between him and the old maths teacher but what? We know Bashir is troubled by nightmares; something connected to his days at Boxdale.
A phone conversation with his mother points to a broken romance. When the pretty police liaison officer asks him out for a drink he’s too busy.
Dimitriades brings a myriad of levels to Bashir. He’s reflective yet at the same time committed and driven, a complicated man for a complicated situation.
When he grows impatient or angry with staff who defy him we’re cheering him on. At the same time he refuses to judge by behaviour but potential, caring to students who we sense never hear words of praise.
“Who’s got Tarek’s back?” he asks the student in one scene.
The Principal deals with difficult issues that many of us don’t want to look at; those parts of our cities where hopelessness reigns; where the education system is in crisis and communities struggle.
Yet we can’t help but hope that Bashir can make a difference, even against the odds.
This is a seriously good drama set in what might at first appear a bleak world. It’s intelligent and well-written, backed by an excellent cast led by the always wonderful Young and Dimitriades.
There is nothing cliché about The Principal and it is one of the revelations on TV this year.
To catch up with The Principal go to: www.sbs.com.au/ondemand/