There is a quote widely attributed to former Secretary of State and Nobel laureate Henry Kissinger: “Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”
Vice Principals, Danny McBride’s new half-hour comedy for HBO, carries that idea to some pretty hilarious extremes. Reteaming with Eastbound & Down co-creator, co-writer, and director Jody Hill, McBride returns once again to Kenny Powers’ old stomping grounds: a North Carolina public school.
Fans of Eastbound, at once one of the darkest and funniest comedies ever to hit television – in one memorable episode, Kenny’s coke jag with a teammate ends when the teammate ODs and has a heart attack; Kenny wipes his fingerprints off of everything in the apartment and beats a hasty retreat, but not before snorting the last line of coke – need not worry that McBride’s or Hill’s sensibilities have softened, as Vice Principals has a very similar tone to the earlier series.
The season 1 trailer promises a salty tale of faculty-room intrigue, as Vice Principal Neal Gamby (McBride) and Vice Principal Lee Russell (Walton Goggins, Justified, The Hateful Eight) vie to replace retiring Principal Wells (Bill Murray), with lots of childish name-calling and taunts and pranks, and I was more than ready to watch 9 episodes of that.
But having seen the first six episodes, I can report that there is more to the show than that: most of that trailer is pulled from the first episode, and while Gamby and Russell’s rivalry does outlast the first episode, McBride and Hill have a little more on their mind than that, introducing twists and a few (extremely dark) turns to the story to keep the viewer pleasurably off-balance.
Like Eastbound, Vice Principals understands that character is the basis of all (good) comedy, and sets about using the plot to illuminate the characters, rather than the other way around. As Gamby, McBride returns to his pre-Eastbound roots, echoing the look and affect of his character from The Foot Fist Way, the 2006 Hill-directed indie that got him on Hollywood’s radar in the first place: a deeply insecure person of little distinction whose personal life is so pathetic (his wife left him for a rugged but very friendly motocross racer who seems to also be taking his place in his daughter’s life) he overcompensates by wielding what little power he has (in this case, over high-school kids) like a battleaxe, to the point that his coworkers hate him.
Goggins’ Russell, at first glance, appears to be the more together of the two: meticulously dressed and well-liked around the school, he’s all smiles and Southern manners, with nothing more in common with Gamby than a desire to sit in the big chair. But as the show unspools, Russell slowly reveals himself to be a borderline psychopath with deep emotional problems, an apparent misogynistic streak, and similar frustration with his life outside school.
Though the power struggle to take over the principal’s office remains an overarching theme for the season, the show doesn’t stick too slavishly to that plot, allowing digressions like Gamby crashing a field trip and Russell dealing with an obnoxious neighbor that are some of the best material in the first batch of episodes. The show also cleverly keeps the main characters’ loyalties shifting, as the hypercompetent Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) arrives at the school with plans of her own. It’s to the show’s credit that Dr. Brown, while not as deeply flawed as Gamby or Russell, not the kind of perfectobot that lazier writers would have created to antagonize them; she’s a three-dimensional character who makes mistakes and has blind spots of her own.
McBride and Hill have announced that the second 9-episode season of Vice Principals has already been shot, and there won’t be a third; apparently they have a clear vision for an 18-episode run with a beginning, middle, and end, and don’t want to get roped into overstaying their creative vision, the way they did with the amusing but tacked-on fourth season of Eastbound. So if the first few episodes hook you (I recommend sticking with it at least through the third) you’re in for a wild ride. My only complaint so far is, why not just put out all 18 at once?