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Head of the Class: Best and Worst TV Principals

March 4th, 2008 2:00pm EST
Boston Public principal Steven HarperTelevision enthusiasts have encountered a number of fictional school principals over the years. Some made weekly occurrences as regular cast members, while others stole the show in guest or recurring roles. Overall quality of these TV administrators varied greatly, and over the years series' have produced principals on both ends of the spectrum, as well as many in between. We have taken a closer look at some favorites from years past, and come up with a list of the best and worst of the bunch.

The Best

Principal Snyder - Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Some may claim that this authoritarian, small-minded disciplinarian deserves a nice comfy spot on the 'worst' list...but they would be wrong. Before jumping to any conclusions about the S-Man, remember this: Snyder (Armin Shimerman) lasted for over two years in a school situated directly over a hellmouth. That's one tough gig, but Snyder was up to the challenge. Throughout his tenure, he managed to keep things (mostly) in line, unlike the wishy-washy Hyena fodder that preceded him.

Was Snyder overly antagonistic when it came to Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and the Scooby Gang? Sure. But one can't really fault him for that. He saw that trouble seemed to follow Buffy wherever she went, and he simply wanted to keep all of that away from the school. As he said on more than one occasion, "I like order." Seems fair enough. And it's not like he had any double standards when it came to his zero tolerance policy. He consistently expected order from his students, but he also wasn't afraid to demand it from a 50 foot tall, demonic Mayor Wilkins (Harry Groener).

So, despite the fact that he believes smell to be some sort of "sixth sense," Snyder deserves recognition for all of his hard work. After all, while Buffy claimed all of the credit for the class of 1999 having the lowest death rate in years, we all know who the true "class protector" was. And he didn't need Jonathan (Danny Strong) to present him with a little umbrella to prove it.

Willard Kraft - Sabrina the Teenage Witch

Principal Kraft was a fair administrator at best, but he gets major bonus points for being played by Martin Mull. Normally, the actor portraying the principal would not factor into the final decision, nor should it. But come on folks, this is Martin Mull, owner of the second most iconic moustache in television and film history (Tom Selleck being number one).

Kraft was a stern authoritarian, and like many fictional TV principals before him, he had a love of the detention slip. He also found himself in some murky water for not only dating one of Sabrina's (Melissa Joan Hart) aunts/guardians, but both of them. Relationships with relatives of a current student may not be forbidden, but those actions are morally ambiguous at best. Especially since he dated both of them. However, we are willing to forgive these transgressions and focus on the positives. Mainly, that he was portrayed by Martin Mull. The man played Colonel Mustard in "Clue." What more do you want?

Steven Harper - Boston Public

Harper's charge wasn't some cushy suburban school for the upper middle class like so many of his fictional counterparts. No, Steven Harper (Chi McBride) fought every single day in the trenches of an inner city public high school in Boston. And he excelled. Harper dealt with everything from abusive parents to students involved in gang activity to sexually deviant teachers. The rigors of his job and challenges that he had to overcome were immense, but he was more than able to handle the daunting task.

In a school populated by bizarre misfits (of both the student and faculty variety) Harper was a level-headed stabilizing force. He was a kind, big-hearted man, but he also could be stern and authoritative when the situation necessitated it. He was well respected by the students and other faculty members, and for good reason. Harper may in fact be the most beloved television principal of all time. Since we love the man so much, we're even willing to let him slide for preparing a Thanksgiving dinner that consisted solely of a turkey and one gigantic bowl of mashed potatoes. Seriously Stevie, couldn't you at least have sprung for a can of cranberry sauce?

Boston Public

The Worst

Seymour Skinner - The Simpsons

What makes Skinner a bad principal? The real question is: what doesn't? Let's start with the season nine revelation that Seymour is, in fact, an imposter. The seemingly straight edge Skin-Man actually stole the identity of his commanding officer in Vietnam (although with all of the revisionist history going on in the series, it will probably be updated to Desert Storm). The ruse was exposed when the real Skinner ventured to Springfield, but all was forgiven when everyone decided that they liked the imposter Skinner more than the real one. It was a storyline applauded by identity thieves all across the world.

A good principal should be efficient, well-liked and most importantly, respected. Skinner can claim none of those attributes. He has seemingly zero authority over his students and faculty members. Worse than that, in the era of "No Child Left Behind," Skinner has seen every single one of his students left behind for a whopping 19 years. Not that it seems to bother him too much. Actually, Skinner's primary motivation is not to run a quality school or provide a good education to Springfield youth. Instead, he lives to impress Superintendent Chalmers, in hopes that the good Superintendent will like him and let him be part of the cool group. Sorry Seymour, you never will be.

Seymour Skinner

Mr. Belding - Saved by the Bell

Belding (Dennis Haskins) gets a few points for often being the most entertaining character on both "Saved by the Bell" and its spin-off, "Saved by the Bell: The New Class." Unfortunately, entertainment value alone does not a good administrator make. And when it comes to evaluating job performance, Belding ranks somewhere between terrible and abominable (but not like the snowman).

Belding's massive ego certainly contributed to his lack of success as the head of Bayside High, but that was far from his only fault. It is certainly advisable and even admirable for a principal to make a strong effort to get to know his or her students, but Belding took things a little too far. He was quite chummy with Zack (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) and company, almost to the point where it seemed like he desperately wanted to be one of the gang. Sure, he went above and beyond when it came to putting the "pal" in principal, but he also effectively undermined what little authority he would have otherwise commanded. Belding was little more than the titular head of Bayside - it was truly a first-class example of inmates running the asylum.

If that wasn't bad enough, the man actually hired Screech (Dustin Diamond) to be his assistant early on in "Saved by the Bell: The New Class." Screech! Guess that means we can throw horrible judgment in there with oversized ego and fraternization with the student body.

Van Clemmons - Veronica Mars

Van Clemmons (Duane Daniels), began his tenure as the long suffering vice-principal of Neptune High. It was clear that he was not content in that role and desired upward momentum. He didn't deserve the promotion that he eventually received (more on that in a minute), as he was not a very effective vice-principal at all. Well, that's putting it lightly. Time and again he was outsmarted by Veronica (Kristen Bell) and her allies, and he never quite seemed to learn his lesson. Veronica might have been a very talented young woman, but she was still a teenager and a student - and Clemmons couldn't handle her.

Then there is the whole moral issue. Clemmons, perhaps because he knew that he would never have received a promotion based on his own merits (or lack thereof), engineered Principal Moorehead's firing in season two. In what was actually a fairly clever maneuver. He decided to use Veronica's talents for his own benefit and set loose the unsuspecting teen sleuth with some classified files. Long story short, Veronica ended up uncovering a scandal that got Moorehead fired - and Clemmons his coveted position. It certainly was a smart play by Vanny (first time for everything), but also a dirty one.

He couldn't get promoted based on his own talent, so instead he used dirty tricks to get what he wanted. Great, Van. Nice lesson to all of those youths who are supposed to look up to you. Now how are you planning on taking down the superintendent?

Honorable Mention

Principal Green - Dawson's Creek

The principal with principles, Green (Obba Babatunde) was a just and righteous man, not to mention a superb role model. He took his position very seriously and proved to be a strong enforcer yet also a warmhearted leader. Unlike Van Clemmons, Mr. Green provided an excellent example for the student body when he refused to pardon the troubled son of a very wealthy and powerful Capeside family. The decision to stand up for what he believed was right may have cost him his job, but not his dignity.

Dishonorable Mention

Mr. Feeny - Boy Meets World

Feeny (William Daniels) was a pompous know-it-all and self-proclaimed "mentor" to all of those kids foolish enough to accept his guidance. Just look where his tutelage got the Matthews brothers. Cory (Ben Savage) started off as a fairly normal kid but by the end of the series had become a neurotic mess. Brother Eric (Will Friedle) faired even more poorly, as he transformed from a likable and popular guy into a weird and creepy nutcase. Diagnosis? TMF (too much Feeny) Disorder. Nice "mentoring" skills. Stick to your gardening, pal.

Boy Meets World

Agree with the list? Disagree? Who's your favorite TV principal? Comment!

Story by Derek Krebs
Starpulse contributing writer


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