The best show on TV over the last couple of months was hidden on the backend of HBO’s always-reliable Sunday night programming. Overshadowed by the critically-acclaimed (but frustrating) limited series The Night Of and the Dwayne Johnson-starring Ballers, the first season of Vice Principals -from Eastbound & Down maestros Danny McBride & Jody Hill- never seemed to garner the critical or popular attention it deserved. Surely, part of this is due to pilot culture in the current TV landscape. There’s just sooooo much “good” stuff on TV. From the eye of either a professional critic or a casual viewer, if the first episode of a series doesn’t reel you in, you’re likely to write it off immediately and spend your precious watching time elsewhere. That’s the nature of the game and showrunner/networks have to know that, but it’s very unfortunate for a show like Vice Principals, which doesn’t show its true colors until the second or third episode. The show wrapped its first season last night in fine form. I just wish more people were paying attention.
The premise is simple enough and something you may expect out of a family friendly network sitcom. A thoughtful “dramedy” in the truest sense of that overused term, Vice Principals concerns two white vice principals -Neil Gamby (Danny McBride) and Lee Russell (Walton Goggins)- at a mostly white high school. When their boss (Bill Murray!) retires, it appears as if we’re in for a competition between the two very different men for the big gig. But then the school district brings in Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) to run things. She’s black. She’s a woman. She’s also remarkably accomplished and way more qualified for the job than either Gamby or Russell. She has multiple degrees and awards, pictures with famous politicians, and an uncanny ability to combine both Russell and Gamby’s respective strengths into one super-principal (Gamby is a capable disciplinarian, Russell is a shmoozer loved by the staff). Brown should have the job. She’s better than both Gamby and Russell. The show is sure to make that clear in the very first episode. However, Gamby and Russell won’t simply roll over. They both believe they’re “the one”. So the two rivals team up and hatch a sinister plan to go outside the bureaucracy, and the law, to bring down Dr. Belinda Brown.
And there you have it. A 2016 show about two white men with no filter trying to drag down a black woman in the workplace. That alone is unprecedented, and made even more poignant by the fact that Vice Principals never feels too heavy-handed. It never explicitly mentions its dealings with both racial and gender issues. Hell, it almost hides those issues behind dick jokes and psychedelic sequences (it’s Danny McBride, after all). But they’re there, and the show wants you to know that. McBride, co-showrunner Jody Hill, and Goggins have all addressed this in interviews. Everything was intentional. None of these artists are strangers to pushing the envelope. Eastbound & Down, while a bit sillier than VP, was much more intelligent and heedful of social issues than it got credit for.
Anyone familiar with Goggins is well aware he’s made a career out of playing deplorable, racist characters with an astute level of nicety (most recently in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight). The subtlety with which the show navigates its “politics” is masterful. There’s also the shows handling of modern masculinity. Gamby is divorced and wants his daughter to participate in equestrian activities, but she seems more interested in dirt bikes; partially due to the influence of her mom’s new boyfriend, the classically manly Ray (HBO regular Shea Whigham). Russell, on top carrying designer handbags and walking in a manner that shows off his ass, is often emasculated by his live-in Korean mother-in-law. Both of these men have issues with their standing as men relative to the women in their personal lives; and those issues bleed into their handling of Belinda in their professional lives. There’s so much going on below the surface.
Of course, that doesn’t matter if the show isn’t actually funny. It is. Much of the comedy comes froms the distinct differences between Gamby and Russell, both professionally and personally. The less eccentric Gamby wears short-sleeve button ups and clip-on ties. The overtly flamboyant Russell wears bright-colored chinos and a bowtie/sweater combo under his flashy blazers. Gamby’s best friend at school is Dayshawn (Sheaun McKinney), a wise but apathetic cafeteria worker who nods his head in response to whatever Gamby says. Russell’s best friend is the drama teacher; with whom Russell can talk about what salon to go to without being ridiculed. Gamby seems genuinely distraught and bothered by the sinister plans against Belinda, whereas Russell is painted as a sociopath who’s done this sort of thing multiple times before. A strange bromance develops, and it’s boosted by the chemistry between McBride and Goggins. They rattle off quality one-liners and converse in a way that feels natural to their respective characters. McBride and Hill as dialogue writers are meticulously detailed. The improvisational nature to the conversations is actually something that requires a great deal of attention.
Many of the funniest bits in Vice Principals come from the specific, stream-of-consciousness way the characters structure their sentences. Goggins and McBride both find the perfect cadences and stresses in their characters’ speech. Russell is a drama queen to an extent, emphasizing certain words to get his point across. Gamby is forever nervous, many of his key phrases come via neurotic mumbling. He’s uncomfortable; whether speaking to his ex-wife, Belinda, or the English teacher who goes from wet dream fodder into his actual lover, Amanda Snodgrass (a perfectly quirky yet endearing Georgia King). Gamby and Russell are different people with different motives brought together by the same twisted, problematic endgame.
Vice Principals gets really dark, really fast. Beyond the social commentary waiting to come to a boiling point, the actions of Gamby and Russell establish them as protagonists that are very tough to root for. MINOR SPOILER ALERT. In the second episode, Gamby and Russell go to Belinda’s house hoping to find evidence to blackmail her with. Instead, they see plaques and achievements. Their response is to burn down her house. It’s provoked by Russell, naturally, but Gamby partakes and he carries the guilt all the way through the first season’s finale. Gamby being pushed to such extremes is what tries his character and makes for much of the late-season drama.
The performances across the board are spot-on. McBride steps out of the shell that’s been formed by Kenny Powers and his characters in various Seth Rogen films. He’s ambitious and caring, but wounded. Not necessarily down on his luck but a man with enough familial problems to make his professional gripes seem silly to the viewer but major to his character, thus creating the character’s ultimate conflict. McBride actually acts here. Gamby’s heart breaks again and again. He falls back on his stern and professional facade even when you just want him to be a dad. McBride nails it with the heavy breathing and muttered profanity. Then there’s Goggins, who completely immerses himself into a self-parodic role a bit less serious than his usual work. He embraces the physicality and speech patterns of the character to a level only matched by the great, more famous working actors such as Christian Bale, Idris Elba, and Tom Hardy. This is a character that could’ve gone many ways but now feels like a dude only Goggins could’ve played. The supporting work from Gregory, Whigham, King, and Busy Phillips (as Gamby’s ex) all meshes itself into the show even if the characters are written as relative cliches.
Kimberly Hebert Gregory’s take on Dr. Belinda Brown stands out. The writing wisely embraces stereotypes of the old-school, hardened black mother. Gregory transcends this to make her character seem well-intentioned even when her methods point to the contrary. She uses her big, emotive eyes to play off Gamby and Russell all the while capturing her own motives. Belinda is really the third lead in this show. Her character is every bit as integral to the main plot, and every bit as fleshed out via subplots, as Gamby & Russell. It’s a breakout performance from Gregory, who to this point is best known for random guest spots on bad shows such as Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory, though she’s rather accomplished on stage.
On a technical, filmmaking level, Vice Principals is something to behold. It creates these strange montages, that show unpardonable destruction cut together with schoolboy innocence complemented by a score that channels a sloppy high school band. The horns are too loud, the drums are perfectly off-beat. The photography uses natural light that plays well off the usually bright color of the players’ clothing.
When Vice Principals was announced, it was slated for an 18-episode, 2-season run from the jump. That has to be liberating as a writer. Too many quality shows don’t get the run they deserve, or even worse, run for too long. This is a series tailored to a specific length and that allows its thematics to expose themselves at the perfect times. It’s a contained story that doesn’t get self-indulgent. I for one am looking forward to 2017 and the final nine episodes. Tune in, ya bish.