"The Principal's Office," the new reality series on truTV, has the unpleasant effect of making growns-up feel old. Watching a parade of bratty students giving lip to school administrators, you can't help but wonder: What's wrong with kids today? And then hate yourself for thinking it.
Still, if there's a case to be made that today's teens are too pampered, too coddled, and too quick to emulate wiseass cartoon characters, this show makes it loudly. TruTV touts the principal's office as "one of the most frightening places on earth," but only if you're worried about your blood pressure.
Each half-hour episode records a string of encounters in different principals' offices, as administrators of varying temperaments deal with low-grade discipline cases: kids caught being tardy, disruptive, or AWOL from school grounds. Tonight's two installments, aired back to back, focus on a 33-year-old principal in suburban New Jersey, a world-weary assistant principal in Danbury, Conn., and a no-nonsense Arkansas man who declares that "I'm a principal because I wasn't a very good welder and I couldn't act."
It's that man, Steve Halter, who seems the most effective at keeping kids in line, perhaps because he has the most medieval tools at his disposal. As per school policy, his students are given a choice between a half-day of Saturday suspension and three licks on the rear with a wooden paddle. (At one point, we hear, but don't see, the latter punishment being dispensed.)
Halter is also the most heartless of the principals, in a tough-love sort of way. In one episode, he tells a girl with the stomach flu that if she goes home early from in-school suspension, she stands to miss her prom. Her tears and threats of vomit do no good. Halter has his handbook and he's sticking to it.
In that case, you can almost drum up sympathy for the sinner. Most of the time, though, this show makes you wish that the principals had sharper teeth. Eric Sheninger, the young principal of New Jersey's New Milford High School, doesn't inspire a whit of fear in the kids across his desk. One boy has Photoshopped a picture of Sheninger riding atop a Tyrannosaurus rex, and says, with a sarcastic smile, "You're a powerful man."
And when Sheninger tells a girl that she can't send text messages in marine biology class, she first protests, "We're teenagers. What are we supposed to do without our cellphones?" When that doesn't work, she tries another tactic: "It is kind of a boring class."
Bad behavior is hardly new; kids have been sassing principals onscreen for as long as high school and movies have coexisted. Still, there's something shocking about the brazenness we see, and how emboldened these real kids are by the cameras. Who cares about a stern look from a high school bureaucrat when you've got a chance to show off for the world?
"Don't be a knucklehead, son. There's no future in it," Halter tells one student. But a generation of quasi-stars on YouTube and MySpace says otherwise. And it's pretty clear which example these kids are following.
Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.