Vice Principals Season-Premiere Recap: Back to School

Vice Principals

Tiger Town
Season 2 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating *****
Photo: HBO

Last we saw him, Neal Gamby (Danny McBride) had been shot and left for dead in the North Jackson High School parking lot. The fever dream that opens season two of Vice Principals continues that stark-silly-strange tone, as Gamby, in full Warriors regalia, wanders through the halls of a seemingly pillaged North Jackson High. He first confronts a classroom full of students all wearing the same mask as his shooter, and then a tiger, before he’s woken by his daughter, Janelle (Maya G. Love).

It’s been a while since the shooting, and a lot has changed. Neal is now thick as thieves with the perpetual sweetheart Ray (Shea Whigham), beau of his ex-wife Gale (Busy Philipps), as he’s been recovering in their home. He’s also gone to the trouble of putting together a conspiracy board that puts all others to shame: His is 3-D, with a fold-out model of the parking lot, though predictably all strings lead back to his imagined nemesis, Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory). “Violence is never the answer,” he mumbles to himself, as he tests out a spring-loaded gun, “but it is the solution.”

Meanwhile, Lee Russell (Walton Goggins) seems to be prospering as the de facto principal at North Jackson. He’s driving a BMW, has moved into a considerably larger house, and has changed the school mascot from the Warriors to the Tigers (ahem). He’s also ingratiated himself with the Liptrapps, dropping by every now and then to visit with Gamby.

Russell’s visit in “Tiger Town” goes a long way toward laying out the baseline and insane prescience of this show. He compares his new position to that of King Tut, and when Gamby points out that Tutankhamen died because he was poisoned, Russell’s response is simply, “I don’t give a shit! I’m the king!” Yikes. It’s always been uncomfortable to watch Vice Principals and its Trumpian main characters, but it’s all the crazier given how keenly series co-creators McBride and Jody Hill have their finger on the pulse of the American climate. Vice Principals began filming in 2015 and wrapped in early 2016 — both seasons were shot simultaneously — and it’s inarguably more cutting now than it initially felt last year. We’re watching these men destroy everything around them in a matter of unearned pride.

That’s part of why it’s strange to discover that Belinda, who was essentially the third lead in the first season, is no longer in the picture. After Russell manages to get Gamby on his feet and back to school — with a send-off gift from Ray of a cane-sword, in what I’m hoping is a Chekhov’s gun situation — he puts his vengeance plan in motion, tracking Belinda to her new home and finally to a family dinner. He confronts her in the restaurant’s bathroom, fumbling his attempt at shooting her and ultimately getting derailed completely when she asks if he’s ever considered why he got shot and Russell didn’t. Then she excuses herself to return to her family, and that is that, apparently.

McBride himself has noted that Russell and Gamby are essentially villains, so Belinda’s absence — the lack of a hero — leaves something of a vacuum in the show. It remains to be seen if season two will introduce a similar balancing force, or if that weight will fall to Gamby to shape up and step up. Either way, it’s a loss if she’s truly gone, though maybe it’s fitting that the one character wise enough to see past petty squabbling is the only one to get out. Happy trails, Belinda.

In the meantime, Gamby has to contend with a new vice-principal named Nash (Dale Dickey). Dickey’s been made up to look like a mini-Gamby, down to the vest and the hair, as well as the ball-busting attitude. (Nash is “built like a corn-cob pipe,” according to Russell.) It seems like they’ll be simpatico soon enough — or at least I hope they are, given how hysterical they look together — even if Gamby’s having trouble acclimating to a third wheel. He’s also doing his best to avoid Amanda Snodgrass (Georgia King) after ghosting during his recovery, as well as Ms. Abbott (Edi Patterson, in what continues to be a truly inspired, manic performance), who still has the hots for him.

Russell, for his part, has Superintendent Haas (Brian Howe) to deal with. Almost as soon as Lee shows Gamby his office — decked out in a painting of him seated among tigers with the student body saluting him, as well as various Korean-affecting knick-knacks — Haas comes charging in, pleased as punch to see Gamby back but ready to tear Lee a new one. There’s an immediate tension in the air, which is only worsened by Gamby’s Belinda-inspired suspicion about his shooting.

As they always do when there’s trouble afoot, Gamby and Russell reconvene in the woods. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t take too long for them to get back on the same page, as Russell confesses his woes as principal and then produces a binder he’s compiled for Gamby of every enemy he’s ever made. The scene ends with a handshake that mirrors the ending of the pilot, where they initially shook hands after agreeing to work together to take Belinda down. But things aren’t over yet: “Tiger Town” closes out in the North Jackson cafeteria instead. After watching Nash struggle to get some students to turn a boom box down, Gamby takes matters into his own hands, seizing his Braveheart moment by smashing the boom box to pieces. “I’m back,” he declares, “and I’m ready to put my foot inside someone’s ass!” Looks like school is back in session.

Vice Principals Season-Premiere Recap: Back to School