Judge Erich Asperschlager left school with an ASBO and a bun in the oven.
"You've only been here half a day and that's the second time you've had the police 'round."
If a TV-on-DVD box set proudly proclaimed itself "America's #1 Show!" I'd probably assume that show wasn't very good. (Sorry, fellow Americans, but you haven't done too much to prove that assumption wrong.) When I saw Waterloo Road touted as "The U.K.'s Most Popular Drama Series," however, I was intrigued. Sure, the Brits are just as weak as us when it comes to trashy reality television, and they love Australian soaps for some reason, but the BBC's track record puts the big U.S. networks to shame. Created by Ann McManus and Maureen Chadwick, Waterloo Road isn't in the same league as across-the-pond favorites like Downton Abbey or Sherlock. It tends toward broad characters and melodrama, with story arcs that wrap up a bit too neatly. But darn if it isn't entertaining.
With the show in its eighth season in the UK, Acorn brings the series stateside with Waterloo Road: Series One. Set in a "comprehensive school" in a rough neighborhood, the series focuses on the lives, loves, and conflicts between teachers and students. Among the key players: Jack Rimmer (Jason Merrells, Casualty), who is promoted to headmaster after his predecessor suffers a nervous breakdown; Andrew Treneman (Jamie Glover, Jupiter Moon), a posh teacher who wants to turn around the struggling school; school counselor Kim Campbell (Angela Griffin, Cutting It); unhappily married teachers Tom Clarkson (Jason Done, The English Patient) and Lorna Dickey (Camilla Power, Emmerdale); flirty French teacher Steph Haydock (Denise Welch, Coronation Street); and drama teacher Izzie Redpath (Jill Halfpenny, EastEnders), whose 15-year-old daughter Chlo (Katie Griffiths, Hatfields & McCoys) gets in serious trouble with her thug boyfriend Donte (Adam Thomas, Doctors) after a drunken night out.
Waterloo Road might kick off with a student smashing a window, but it's not interested in real menace. Unlikable characters might be the trend on American cable television, but mass appeal programs generally don't traffic in anti-heroes. Harry Brown this isn't. Even unsympathetic characters are softened as the season goes on. Donte, for example, starts off by stealing a younger kid's bus pass and calling his dad to come in and beat up a teacher who dares discipline him. After he lands in serious trouble two episodes in, though, his swagger becomes contrition and by season's end we're actually rooting for him to get a second chance.
There are truly unpleasant characters, like alpha bully Lewis (Craig Fitzpatrick, The Visit) and the kid-hating English teacher Grantly Budgeon (Philip Martin Brown, Sleepy Hollow), but they are mostly there to antagonize the main characters. There's drama, of course. There are love triangles, accidents, blackmail, a secret abortion, bullying, sexual harassment, and a man dressed in a bunny costume. But unlike edgier serial TV shows, the season ends with all problems solved, and almost everyone in a happier place. If it takes some storytelling shortcuts to reach those happy endings, well—maybe there's a reason this is the UK's most popular show.
Waterloo Road is good fun to watch, with enough twists to keep things interesting throughout all eight episodes. The main question this season is whether Treneman's fancy education ideas can succeed at Waterloo Road, not just with the rough and tumble kids, but also with the teachers—in particular, Kim, whose light touch is at odds with his hard-nosed approach to discipline. As unpopular as his ideas are, though, they might be the only thing that keeps the school open once the government evaluators show up later on. And the drama doesn't end with the school day. Besides the turmoil caused by Chlo and Dante's bad decisions, a lot of screen time this year is spent on the romantic entanglements between three teachers, two of whom are married. Unrequited love and secret passions hardly breaks new television ground, but it's good soapy fun.
Waterloo Road: Series One hits Region 1 DVD with a clean 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer. An underachieving school under threat of closure is bound to look grimy, but colors are natural, with solid black levels and detail. It's a satisfying picture for a show that doesn't try to be flashy. Like its original British release, there are no bonus features.
Waterloo Road isn't edgy. Its story arcs aren't terribly original. But it packs enough twists and drama into each hour-long episode to guarantee that American viewers—like their British counterparts—will want to tune in for more.
Not guilty, guv!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
Review content copyright © 2012 Erich Asperschlager; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.