Waterloo Road: Series 1 DVD Review: The Headmaster Ritual

This long-running UK drama series has been airing in its native land since 2006 and has appeared on BBC America, but is only just now reaching U.S. DVD racks. It’s rare for a current UK series to surpass 100 episodes with little visibility here (ok, it’s rare to surpass 100 episodes period), so I was intrigued to find out how this flew under my radar for so long. I can’t speak for its ongoing quality in current episodes, but at least at its start, the series is a fairly uninvolving and uninspired look at the lives of students and teachers populating a troubled high school.

Our entry into the world of Waterloo Road comes via the premiere episode’s introduction of a straight-laced new deputy headmaster named Andrew Treneman who is predictably horrified and unprepared for the raucous jungle he has accepted as his new place of employment. The high school is populated with all sorts of rough, rugged, and raw students who would just as soon rob or stab you than learn anything. The veteran teachers and headmaster have adopted a mindset of complacency, allowing the students to run wild rather than attempting to enforce any sort of structure or discipline above the bare minimum needed to avoid complete anarchy. Treneman isn’t having any of that mess, so he sets out to transform the school into his image of a highly organized, effective institution by assigning seats in his classrooms and setting up detention to resemble something closer to prison than a country club. No surprise, his approach eventually begins to pay dividends, but that’s not really the thrust of the show.

The writers tend to split the plot time between the students and teachers, showing that both groups are troubled in their own ways. That’s the approach our 90210 reboot took in its first season before realizing that viewers didn’t really care about crusty old teachers and parents, shifting the focus primarily to students in subsequent seasons. Waterloo Road is a long way from West Beverly High, but I’m hoping these writers reached the same conclusion in later series. For series 1 though, we get treated to plenty of teacher action, particularly a completely abhorrent love triangle that bears recapping to demonstrate the distasteful plot choices of the show. In the first episode, a male teacher informs his fiancée co-teacher that he doesn’t love her and won’t marry her, then confesses his love to another teacher who shoots him down even though she realizes she loves him too, so he crawls back to the first teacher and marries her, but then shockingly isn’t in love with her and ends up kissing teacher two on his wedding night, then first teacher announces she’s pregnant with his child, then weeks later first teacher decides to abort her child without telling him but takes teacher two with her for moral support and they both lie to him about it, and so on. I hate all three of them.

The student plots aren’t much better, headlined by a not-surprising drunk driving accident early in the show that leads to the death of a student and extreme fallout including incarceration for the driver. The students are more caricatures than well-developed characters, with only basic background provided about them (they’re poor, and they’re tough and mean because of their poverty and broken homes), so we never really care about them or the repercussions of their actions. Unlike Skins, where similarly uninhibited students engage in some occasionally insightful and usually entertaining shenanigans, the early plots of this show seem like they were drawn at random from a stock barrel of generic stories we’ve seen many times before. The actors portraying the students are equally generic, offering little incentive to continue following their adventures. In terms of production and writing qualities, I found its closest domestic comparison to be South of Nowhere, which was itself a low-budget spin on the original 90210. Although I managed to stay barely invested in South of Nowhere throughout its full run, I felt no such dedication here, making this one Road I’m not likely to travel again.

Waterloo Road Series 1 is available on DVD on October 16th. It includes all eight episodes but offers no bonus features.

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Steve Geise

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