Vice Principals Recap: Undisciplined

Walton Goggins as Lee Russell.
Walton Goggins as Lee Russell. Photo: Fred Norris/HBO
Vice Principals

Vice Principals

Circles Season 1 Episode 5
Editor's Rating 2 stars

Who is Lee Russell? Walton Goggins’s drawling, mincing creation remains the biggest mystery of Vice Principals, his presence having been minimized or even erased altogether in the previous two episodes. Last week, I was content to simply write him off as a sociopath, and figured that would be the extent of the psychology behind his push-and-pull power struggle with Gamby.

Turns out there’s a bit more going on under that blonde-tipped hair (even when he gets a new haircut). “Circles” is the first episode to center on Russell, as his masculinity is thrown into question by a loud, muscle-y neighbor who refuses to turn down his workout music at night. Egged on by his wife and mother-in-law (neither of whom he appears to have any particular affection for), Russell attempts to reason with the meathead before resorting to all-out aggression. That’s the only way he and his partner-in-crime know how to resolve conflicts, anyway.

It’s easy to guess why the show’s creators want to see how their protagonists fare outside school grounds: Watching Russell try to handle someone he has no authority over gives us a new facet into his character, not to mention his still-undefined sexuality. But this story line suffers from trying to make him too sympathetic, deliberately painting his adversary in the most awful, bigoted strokes imaginable (see the horribly racist verbal abuse of his wife at the supermarket) to make Russell look better by comparison.

The approach inserts pathos in a character who was probably more interesting when he stayed shallow. It’s funny that a grown man would be demonically obsessed with taking down a high-school principal, but learning that his personal life is sad is like doing extra credit in an easy-A class. Why bother?

Gamby’s B-plot is the more entertaining of the two, as the disciplinarian-in-chief struggles to adapt Dr. Brown’s new alternatives to detentions and suspensions. Brown calls it “restorative justice,” and it looks like a cross between a college “safe space” and that season of The Wire where all the troublemakers got their own schoolroom: beanbag chairs, a popcorn machine, and kids talking about their feelings. This is some distance removed from the Neal Gamby school of punish first, ask questions never, and his inability to adjust to this new way of thinking is our most perfect summation yet of Vice Principals’ central theme: woefully inadequate man-babies stuck in the middle of a changing world they don’t understand. Dr. Brown’s plan winds up being good for Gamby’s psyche, though it would have been fun to see “Circles” play more with the contrast in disciplines. If the punishment for a group cheating on a math test is lounging on beanbags, will it really deter the girls from cheating again?

Instead of going down that road, Vice Principals uses the rough patches in Gamby and Russell’s lives as fuel for another temporary breakup of the “business partnership,” instigated by a pretty funny argument in the woods that lacks enough fortitude to matter past the end of the episode. Fittingly, Gamby and Russell patch over their disagreements by beating the snot out of a guy. Even as “Circles” begins to hint at some homoerotic subtext between these rivals — a development that would take this show in legitimately unexpected directions, rather than darker and darker ones — it makes sure to end on something aggro and testosterone-affirming enough to keep everyone on the same page for a little bit longer. That’s a shame. We were almost on the verge of a major breakthrough, and it didn’t even take popcorn.

Class Notes:

  • This is a great one-liner from a closeted man: “Why would I try to touch your dick? I got my own dick.”
  • The visual style of this show favors a swirling camera around close-ups of the protagonists’ faces, often for little discernable reason.
  • My favorite line of the night is Gamby’s indignant “Stop accusing me of f—king men in the woods.” Also funny is the fact that he never outright denies the charge, and Dayshawn’s insistence that he’s not here to judge.

Vice Principals Recap: Undisciplined