The Problem With HBO’s Vice Principals

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L-R: Danny McBride and Walton Goggins in Vice Principals. Photo: HBO

In comedy, timing is everything. Vice Principals, the new HBO comedy that has a mean streak so pronounced it could easily wipe out an army of rage-spewing internet trolls, may be arriving at a less than ideal time for its particular brand of humor.

Starring Danny McBride and Walton Goggins as South Carolina high-school administrators so desperate to become the head honcho at their institution that they will stop at nothing — really and truly nothing — to gain an advantage, Vice Principals is outrageous, no-holds-barred, squirm-inducing television. The first episode alone attempts to mine humor from a woman dying of cancer, affirmative action, comments about school shootings, and two grown white men — that would be McBride’s Neal Gamby and Goggins’s Lee Russell — looking at the extremely qualified African-American woman who’s been appointed principal and declaring: “Let’s take that bitch down.” The show does not condone the behavior of its titular vice-principals; the more episodes one watches — HBO provided six of the season’s nine in advance — the clearer it becomes that Vice Principals is really about two emasculated males who need to feel like big men at work in order to compensate for personal lives that make them feel small. Still, as Neal and Lee go to increasingly extreme efforts to undermine and threaten Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory), it’s impossible not to wonder: At this very specific moment in America, do we really need to be laughing at two white dudes having so much fun trying to destroy a black woman? Even when there are moments in Vice Principals that make you laugh, and there are, your relationship status with it may remain permanently stuck on “It’s complicated.”

Neal Gamby, a disciplinary madman who curses out students and gets off on giving kids detention, could easily pass for a distant cousin of the mulleted, washed-up baseball star Kenny Powers from Eastbound & Down, the previous HBO series that, like this one, was co-created by McBride and frequent collaborator Jody Hill. Both men speak without thinking, have misogynistic tendencies, generally treat the people around them with disdain, and put their racism on full display. (When Lee’s Korean wife answers the door in Vice Principals, Neal addresses her by saying, in a stereotypically Asian accent: “Me see Lee? Me work at school?”) McBride has made an entire career out of portraying blustery human steamrollers like this and, fortunately, knows how to soften him just enough to make his fully inflated balloon of insecurities visible.

The funniest episode of that initial six is the third one, which takes a break from Neal’s and Lee’s principal-toppling schemes to send Neal on a field trip to Charles Towne Landing with a bunch of teenagers who don’t respect him and a group of teachers who can’t stand him. In that environment, Neal’s outsize sense of outrage and entitlement stands in much starker relief against the calmer, more rational people that surround him. At one point, after some wine gets stolen from Neal’s hotel room, he bursts in on several students while shouting, with great vengeance and furious anger: “Who did this? Who drank my Chablis?” Few things are funnier than a person whose indignation is completely disproportionate to a situation, and McBride is a master at depicting guys who can’t figure out how to properly calibrate.

But things get less funny when two indignant guys get together and start engaging in genuinely hurtful behavior. That’s where Vice Principals becomes more problematic. As the slippery, mincing, butt-kissing Lee Russell, who’s never fully dressed without a bow tie and a disingenuous smile, Goggins is extremely convincing, perhaps too much so. A gifted actor who’s accustomed to playing characters with a dark side, he slides so easily into Lee’s particular brand of darkness that, when paired with Neal, the two can be too much to take. Without revealing any spoilers, they do something in the second episode that’s so dastardly, it becomes challenging to care about them to the degree Vice Principals seems to want. It helps that, as Dr. Brown, Kimberly Hebert Gregory is no shrinking violet; she keeps proving she can give as good as she gets to a degree that perhaps will pay off in the latter third of the season. But especially in those first two episodes, Vice Principals walks a very shaky line between black comedy that reveals the idiocy of small, spiteful men and LOL comedy that revels in destruction. 

Many TV and movie projects have effectively been built around awful people doing awful things. Veep, the HBO series whose time slot is being passed along to Vice Principals, does it superbly. Eastbound & Down, whose sensibility is, understandably, quite similar to this new McBride vehicle, did it, too, albeit with less sophistication than Veep. For another example of a work that takes magnificent pleasure in the Machiavellian plotting that happens at a high school, one need look no further than Alexander Payne’s Election to see how it can be done well. By comparison, Vice Principals suffers, partly from not quite nailing the proper tone and, admittedly, because of the moment in which it happens to be arriving.

With the Black Lives Matter movement dominating the headlines, a presidential candidate spitting out racist and sexist comments on the regular, and the concept of female Ghostbusters causing a certain subsection of the population to go ballistic, this should be the perfect time for a comedy that shows us how ridiculous it looks when white men get petty to an extreme that isn’t justified. But Vice Principals marinates so much in its own outrageousness, it’s depressingly easy to imagine that some people will laugh at the show's antics for all the wrong reasons.