“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?,” my colleague Jen Chaney wrote in her review of Vice Principals last year. I get it. I almost quit too. During its first season, the HBO comedy’s embodiments of toxic masculinity, Neal Gamby (Danny McBride, who co-created the show with frequent collaborator Jody Hill) and Lee Russell (Walton Goggins), did everything they could to undermine and terrorize Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory), all because they felt entitled to the principal job that she earned. In an early episode, they even burn down her house, but I actually found certain actions later in the season harder to stomach. I won’t spoil them just in case you want to catch up. Because I think you should. If you can.
After seeing much of Vice Principals season two, which was entirely directed by David Gordon Green instead of Hill, who directed season one, I can say it’s definitely worth it. As McBride explained to me, season one was about building a certain tension, about delaying judgment, and season two is the release. It’s Judgment Day. Even the people who like the first season said it was fascinating but laughless; that isn’t the case anymore. Vice Principals definitely feels like a comedy this time around and a special one at that. After watching an episode where Gamby, forced to substitute teach A.P. History, flails while trying to explain the Reconstruction period, I remembered feeling lucky that I stuck with it. In era of binge-watching, it is a rare experience, but by forcing the audience to sit in its discomfort, the payoff on the other end is magnified.
McBride still isn’t sure how he feels about it, though. He wanted to tell a different kind of comedic story, but he’s aware that doing so means that people who might have appreciated Vice Principals will never finish it. Ahead of Sunday’s season-two premiere, McBride and Goggins discuss the show’s unique structure, why they don’t want you to feel sympathetic for Gamby and Russell, and what a story conceived of a decade ago means under a Trump presidency.
Vice Principals was originally conceived as a film, but then turned into a TV series with specifically two seasons. What impact did a two-act structure have on the story?
Danny McBride: When we were looking at opening it up to tell it over the course of two seasons, we were looking at it like it was a first semester and a second semester. These guys embarked on this devious, reprehensible quest in the first season, and they achieved what they set out to do. The second season is about them getting what they asked for and how that plays out for both of them. We said it’s like Crime and Punishment. The first season is the crime and the second season is the punishment.
There was a certain criticism in early reviews that it was unclear if the show was indicting the actions of these characters. And I felt that as I watched the show in real time, but then it all clicked with that final shot of season one, pun intended, with Gamby bleeding out on the pavement. The indictment came, but you wanted to give the audience the experience of sitting in that feeling as long as possible.
Walton Goggins: [Clapping] Well done, you.
DM: Our hope was to use people’s knowledge of what they’ve seen in other movies and shows against them, presenting these guys like they’re the heroes, and instantly, in the second episode, having them burn down their boss’s house. It keeps you, as an audience member, not sure of what you’re rooting for or what you want to have happen. It’s why we didn’t make it as a feature: In an hour and a half, we felt like you could see the writing on the wall, but spreading it out over 18 episodes, you’re allowed to take these detours and explore other characters and it suddenly makes you feel conflicted about where it’s heading. The type of comedy Jody and I have created before is not stuff you can give to a test audience. The average person isn’t necessarily going to gravitate towards it, and I think that’s because there’s a lot more going on than would appear.
You’ve said you wanted to make something edgy. I often think about how some complain that people are too easily offended nowadays, but for comedy to be truly edgy, it demands somebody be offended. If no one’s offended, what’s the edge? How do you feel about people being offended by the show, about people who might’ve dropped out after an early episode?
DM: One thing Jody, David, and myself talked about with this show that we thought was cool is that we were seeing a lot of trends in theaters. Even the biggest movie in the world has its weekend, but after that, there’s all these other things to occupy your time. With TV, it owns you if you’re into it for ten weeks. A lot of the biggest cultural experiences that I’ve had were with Lost, Sopranos, Six Feet Under because I spent a week in between episodes hypothesizing and wondering where it was going.
What I didn’t see happening was that people would make such assumptions about what we were saying. It was crazy to read reviews and think, Man, this critic has only seen two episodes and they think that they know more about our characters’ intentions and where the story’s going than we do. And they feel so bold that they’ll go on to say they didn’t watch any of the other ones! We did talk about, “Man, I wonder if this show would’ve worked better out the gate if it had been available for people all at once to go at their own pace.” But then again, you work yourself into the idea that someone spins it out on a weekend and they’re on to the next thing.
It’s a give-and-take. Forcing people to watch it week over week and building that tension about the end goal is a more satisfying experience, but it means some people will lose out. A lot of both seasons is showing how bad these characters’ home lives are. How do you walk a line of explaining their behavior, but not necessarily justifying it?
DM: Ultimately, we’re not asking the audience to show sympathy for these guys. We’re just presenting what their story is. That’s the thing that’s most frustrating about these characters: You will see something in them that you might identify with, and then they still do shit you don’t want them to do. It’s not justifying behavior. It’s just making you frustrated at the way people are. It’s a character study, as much as Taxi Driver is on Travis Bickle. At the end of that movie you’re not like, “Man, isn’t he so sympathetic, these things he did?” It’s a fucked-up journey!
WG: I don’t wake up in the morning, judging this person. That’s not my job. I don’t have to fall in love with him or condone his behavior. My job has been around for thousands of years, man. I’m a storyteller and I try to look for stories that challenge me. For me, Lee Russell and Neal Gamby start off in such an emotional hole. They’re six feet under before they even step out of bed in the morning. I was just really, really curious about the source of this pain and their desire to share it with someone.
Last summer, during the press tour for the first season, you were often asked about how the show seemed to perfectly line up with a political moment. And then the election happened. With Trump winning, all culture, regardless of what the creators initially intended, is suddenly viewed through this lens. How does it feel to have the second season come out now?
DM: Maybe it’s a fault of mine, but I don’t equate art and things that are out there as everything lining up with what’s happening in politics. Even though, when the first season came out, everyone was equating it: “Oh, this is about the Trump voter,” “This is about the angry white male.” It isn’t not about that, but that wasn’t the intention. I remember joking with Walt, “Man, if people thought that lined up in the first season, it’s pretty insane how the second season lines up!” Ultimately what that means is that we are not in a unique time period. This is the pitfalls and perils of leadership, good or bad.
I was rewatching some press thing you guys did for the first episode, and it had a quote I hadn’t seen anywhere: “Vice Principals is a dark, strange, twisted tale about leadership, friendship, loyalty, and the fall of Western civilization.”
I was like, “He knew!” The show taps into a thing, coincidentally, that some might fear will lead to the collapse of Western civilization. Do you think as Southerners who’ve grown up more around certain people, you understand something that those in the Hollywood “bubble” might not?
DM: I don’t even think it has to be the South. It’s human nature. There can be a guy in the hills of L.A. or a guy in the hills of the Appalachian Mountains who act this way when they’re hurt, or don’t have what they need in life. I don’t know why, but we have been obsessed with the angry Southern man! Jody Hill and myself grew up in the South, and we’re proud of that, but we would’ve been considered the most liberal guys in the South. When you come to Hollywood, you’re considered conservative just because you’re from the South! And yet we went to art school! I didn’t hunt. I wasn’t into NASCAR.
WG: For example, I really don’t believe that the racial element was injected into the first season. I think that was an interpretation. It’s really more of a study of greed! Outside of this pain that these two guys obviously have from things that have happened in their life, it’s a narcissistic, unempathetic fucking nature that really can reflect our culture at times. Hopefully at the end of this, they’re going to be able to step outside of that and see what they truly can be and what they do need from other people.
Do you have a sense of who these characters would’ve voted for?
WG: Themselves! Lee Russell would’ve wrote in his own name.
DM: I have no idea. I don’t think he would’ve registered to vote.
There’s an episode where Gamby teaches A.P. History and he has to talk about the Reconstruction period. It becomes quickly clear he doesn’t know anything about it. Was that intentional?
DM: [Laughs.] It totally was! We wanted to play around with this guy’s ignorance. When we first broke down these two characters, Lee and Neal, they were really one character split into two people. There’s two different types of leaders: leaders who are so dumb that they don’t know the right things to say, and leaders who are so smart that they know what they’re not supposed to say. There are pitfalls to both of those types of leaders. Neal Gamby has a heart underneath it all, but he’s not equipped to deal with these kids. The idea of choosing Reconstruction was just playing around with the idea of, “This is a story set in the South, and this guy would be characterized as a [proud Southerner], but he has no understanding of the history of the place where he lives.” It has to do with probably a lot of people that I know in the South! [Laughs.] They don’t even understand the history they’re being branded with.
You said a lot of the characters you create are based on people you knew in high school. If they watched the show, what do you think they’d think of these people?
DM: I always wondered that about Eastbound, what some of the assholes I went to high school with would think about me playing that role. Luckily, I don’t keep up with any of them! I wonder if some of the people I was heavily influenced by, if they ever understand that they’re being channeled.
WG: And it’s a negative view of themselves in that. Some people just love Kenny Powers! Somebody could look at that and go, “Yeah, maybe this is about me because I’m so fucking cool.” He still sees it that way!
Eastbound allowed people to go, “Yeah, this is about a cool guy!” With this show, however, I don’t think people want to see themselves. You have said that both this show and Eastbound are about dreams and dreamers, but considering how this season goes, what are you saying about dreams and idealism?
DM: Sometimes you have to assess why you’re following a particular dream. With these guys, they both think that this principal job is the answer to the holes in their lives. They’re willing to push themselves outside the realm of what they ever would’ve thought possible to get this. By doing it, they basically destroy themselves. Dreams are important, and I wouldn’t be where I am if I didn’t have a firm belief that I wanted to do something specific, but I think it’s also a cautionary tale about being careful about what you think is going to fix you.