Before anything else, let’s get this out of the way: OMG, Bill Murray in a sitcom! Well, he’s in the pilot of Vice Principals, anyway, for a whopping two scenes. It took Parks and Recreation years to convince Murray to play the mayor of Pawnee, but give him some straight-man patriotism on HBO as an old-softie principal retiring to take care of his dying wife, and apparently he’s ready and willing. (Especially if you come to his home in Charleston.) He doesn’t do anything special while he’s here, but it’s the thought that counts.
Co-created by Danny McBride and Jody Hill, and executive-produced by David Gordon Green, Vice Principals is in many ways a tonal continuation of the last Hill-McBride-Green HBO series, Eastbound & Down. It’s got another egocentric loser who pretends he’s not a loser, set in and around a small-town Carolina high school. But this new series, which follows two vice-principals (played by McBride and Walton Goggins) battling it out for that coveted top spot on the rung soon to be vacated by Murray, actually has more in common with Hill’s brilliant and underrated 2009 feature, Observe and Report. In that movie, a pathologically insecure mall cop (played by Seth Rogen) wreaks havoc because he believes he deserves better from the world. The first episode of Vice Principals isn’t nearly as funny or as subversive as its predecessor — or the hysterical Eastbound pilot. But, like a high-school kid, it has potential if it just learns to focus.
McBride’s Neal Gamby carries himself with a dissonant mix of grandiose ambition and childishness, more like Rogen’s character than the volcanic blend of mullet masculinity and cocaine that was Kenny Powers. Gamby is the VP in charge of discipline, the guy whose job is to be hated by everyone. Your school almost certainly had an authority like him, someone who treated his young charges not as minds to be molded but as habitual line-steppers, always one false move away from total anarchy. If you were a troublemaker, you probably saw him more than you saw any teacher. “They don’t like me,” Gamby says of the students. “But they fear me, and that’s enough.”
Being That Guy clearly takes a psychological toll, and Gamby has a severe case of arrested development. He shrivels up like a raisin at the slightest challenge to his manhood, whether from colleagues or his ex-wife, Gale Liptrapp (the always great Busy Philipps). “We’re not married anymore, so you can’t tell me what to do,” he snaps at her. Whenever he’s attacked, he deflects with babbling schoolyard manners.
From the first scene, we set up the pitiful rivalry between Gamby and Goggins’s Lee Russell, a shameless brownnoser in a three-piece suit that probably smells of too much cologne. The two men hiss at each other, flip each other off during the Pledge of Allegiance, and generally act like assholes. If there’s one common refrain in Jody Hill comedies, it’s the constant utterance of “fuck you” — and if there’s one thing on this show that will guarantee a laugh from me every time, it’s Goggins saying, “My dick.”
Russell’s careerist motivations seem pretty clear, but why does Gamby want the head principal job so bad? He seems to hate the kids, as well as everyone else at school except for a cafeteria worker named Dayshaun (Sheaun McKinney) and Ms. Snodgrass (Georgia King), a new teacher he’s crushing after. It seems Russell is correct when he guesses that his rival wants the job because “you got absolutely dick-all else going on in your life.” Gamby lives alone surrounded by stacks of unopened moving boxes, he’s humiliated by the constant presence of his ex’s genial new lover, and his own daughter seems to be tuning him out.
Despite their rivalry, Gamby and Russell call a truce by the end of the first episode to conspire against a new common enemy: Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory), the far-more qualified candidate brought in to run the place after the school board realizes these two idiots couldn’t run an ice-cream truck. Dr. Brown initially seems set up to be the innocent victim of Gamby’s undisciplined harassment — at one point, he makes a crude joke about affirmative action — but the show wisely pivots to make clear that she’s a formidable foe. The quickness with which Gregory drops her pleasantries in favor of an outright threat is the only truly surprising moment of the episode, and as a creative choice it’s much more fun than watching her naively operate above these two bozos.
Whatever happens in the school-administration standoff, it’s bound to happen quick. In keeping with this new era of hit-it-and-quit-it TV, Vice Principals will last for two seasons and 18 episodes, covering the span of a single school year. Thankfully, this signals that Hill, McBride, and Green don’t have time to waste on wheel-spinning nonsense and won’t reset the stakes at the end of the season — but it doesn’t bode well that the action already feels tired. Vice Principals may be low-priority TV for now, but it’s also low-commitment, which might be a point in its favor.
- Nice marching-band music in the transitions, and use of the Beach Boys’ “Be True to Your School” in the closing credits.
- Murray’s use of the insult “knuckleheads” in the opening scene points to a comic tone that’s basically a filthier Three Stooges.
- I have trouble with deliberately bad-taste medical humor, even that scene in Airplane! where the woman with the guitar keeps knocking the little cancer girl’s IV out of her arm. So the scene where Gamby halts a tribute to his boss’s dying, cancer-stricken wife, while she lies onstage pale as a ghost, just so he can yell at a couple kids for snickering? Couldn’t wait for it to be over.
- No line of dialogue better captures Gamby’s adolescent state of mind more than his retort to Russell’s “Eat shit”: “No thank you, but have fun imagining it, though.” The spectacular unimaginativeness, the double-use of “but” and “though” … it’s a brilliant line that nevertheless can’t do much more than make me chuckle.
- The show is told from Gamby’s point of view, which means we don’t see too much of Russell so far. Let’s hope their rivalry means more screen time for Goggins.