High school is a vicious place, and not just for the students. HBO’s newest comedy series, Vice Principals, premiered Sunday night with an all-star cast and a meanness that brings back memories of the hellishness of public high school.
Danny McBride co-wrote and stars in the series as Vice Principal Neal Gamby, a divorced middle-aged man living in a cardboard box of a townhome whose only goal in life is to have power. When the principal of Lincoln High (played by an exasperated Bill Murray) is forced to retire to take care of his ailing wife, Gamby believes he is finally going to get the job he always deserved. The only thing stopping him? Fellow vice principal Lee Russell (Walton Goggins), a real charmer who can sink to Gamby’s depths of depravity without a second thought. Both men believe they deserve to be in charge, though it’s clear that neither one of them should be from the outset.
The opening sequence depicts Principal Welles’ last time raising the flag and saying the pledge before it. Gamby and Russell argue and bicker throughout the entire flag-raising, and are only somewhat quieted when they say they pledge itself. Welles is even forced to tell them that he’s turning around at last, so that they can stop smacking one another and making obscene gestures behind his back. They act like children even younger than the ones they are in charge of, and it’s only going to go downhill from there.
A fight breaks out in the hallway at school and Gamby helps break it up (partially with his face), only to give a student on the receiving end of bullying a punishment equally harsh to one of the bullies. A pretty female teacher tries to talk Gamby out of it, but he’s as stubborn as many of television’s greatest idiots, and he just doesn’t understand. “Rules are rules,” he says, even as he breaks them left and right.
Gamby is stupid, pugnacious, and socially inept. His argumentative comebacks are on par with “I’m rubber and you’re glue” tactics, and he’s generally forced to resort to swearing and name-calling to get any kind of point across. Russell is his polar opposite, a con-artist with a silver tongue and a clear understanding of how people work. Goggins portrays him as a flamboyant, over-the-top kiss-ass, and he’s fun to watch even when he’s not saying much. When his mouth opens, things get even better.
The dialogue in the Vice Principals premiere is good, even if it’s not exactly word wizardry. It’s vulgar and ridiculous, but the confrontations between Gamby and Russell are comedy gold. On their own, the characters don’t yet hold up, but together they’re great.
Some early criticism of the show has pointed to its meanness as unnecessary, as something too un-PC for our current political climate. The shows’ two white male protagonists treat everyone around them with disrespect, though their individual prejudices are quickly revealed. (Gamby, in particular, is racist as well as sexist and has no idea why people are so offended by him.)
Everything about the show is mean-spirited, going so far as to get laughs from images of a girl awkwardly singing “you’re my hero” to Principal Welles while his dying wife slurps juice through a straw beside him. It revels in its own depravity and gives a giant middle-finger to high school from every angle, though that doesn’t make for easy, comfortable watching. The humor slides between cringe-inducing and laughing at the character’s expense, and it’s definitely not for everyone. Even traditionally mean-spirited shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia find ways to bring levity to awful situations: laughing at Charlie’s mom “having cancer” is funnier than watching Bill Murray stroke his wife’s hand as she withers away in front of an auditorium of snickering kids. There’s dark, and then there’s Vice Principals.
What could make the show work, however, is the interactions between the two titular characters. Once they realize that they have been passed over for a promotion in favor of hiring an outside principal, the two decide to team up to take her out. For her part, Dr. Belinda Brown doesn’t seem like she’s ready to back down easily. After Gamby files a formal complaint to the school board regarding her hiring, she gives him a little warning and channels her inner Pam Grier. My money’s on Brown, for sure.
If Vice Principals continues to let its stars shine and revel in occasional absurdity, the show could work. I laughed the hardest at the show’s minor moments, like Gamby throwing tacks at Russell during an argument and simply yelling “tacks!” It was a brilliant show of his lack of imagination, and so sudden and unexpected that it pulled me out of the back-and-forth bickering for a second. There are several of these little gems scattered throughout the premiere, and hopefully, they’re an indication of what’s to come.
- “Tacks!” A throwback to Dale Gribble‘s “pocket sand!” if ever I saw one.
- Russell’s slo-mo forced laughter while joking with Principal Brown about an ice cream social. Even better? Gamby’s answer when asked what flavor ice cream he likes: “I hate ice cream. I’m lactose intolerant it makes me do diarrhea in my pants.”
- Every vexed facial expression Bill Murray makes.
- Seeing Russell and Gamby join forces at the end, because their evil works best together.