HBO’s Vice Principals is a harrowing look inside the psyches of two mediocre white men who react to marginalization and humiliation with violence. It is ostensibly a comedy. Created by Jody Hill and Danny McBride, the pair responsible for HBO’s raunchy and riotous Eastbound and Down, Vice Principals stars McBride as Neal Gamby, a petit-fascist disciplinarian, and Walton Goggins as Lee Russell, a sycophantic sociopath, both vice principals at a South Carolina high school. Gamby and Russell loathe one another, but after they are passed over for a promotion, they join forces to take down the black woman hired in their place, new principal Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory), an accomplished and experienced educator from Philadelphia. Vice Principals is aware that it is a show about two petulant, middle-age white men trying to destroy the life of an admirable black woman, but this is still such a weighted setup that it topples the show’s comedy. I was fascinated, but I barely laughed.
Gamby is rigid and racist but also honest and vulnerable, a better person than Russell, though less popular with his colleagues. Cuckolded by his ex-wife, humiliated in his professional life, Gamby walks around school handing out detentions and expulsions, calling kids assholes, never bending the rules. He’s trying his best, but that best is as abrasive as lemon-soaked sandpaper on a paper cut. He is a milder version of Eastbound and Down’s outsized Kenny Powers, and like Kenny he is comically touchy, slighted by the most minor provocations. When Gamby finds out he’s lost the promotion, he tries to start a staff rebellion, suggesting that Brown got the job because of affirmative action. The staff, who hate him, are not moved. Vice Principals captures different types of “white fragility,” and Gamby’s is plain to see. He is exactly who he appears to be: an idiotic loser with anger problems who can’t hide his resentment and frustration. But his lack of emotional camouflage makes him easy to identify and contend with: Left to his own devices, he would either be fired for insubordination or would come to respect Brown, both for being a good principal, which she is, and for threatening to “drag his face all over the parking lot,” which she does.
But Gamby is not left to his own devices. He is egged on by Russell, played with a very heavy mince by Goggins, who appears to be a chatty and warm colleague, everyone’s friend. He has a precise wardrobe—summer-weight blazers, bow-ties and a Louis Vuitton attaché case—and frosted tips. But underneath his Southern kindness is a cesspool of fury and schemes. Russell is the one with the strategy, the dossiers on the other teachers, and the iron will, the Goebbels to Gamby’s Brown Shirt. As the episodes go on, Gamby, unhappy and lonely, seems to be conspiring against Brown largely because he enjoys having a friend. Goggins gets far less screen time than McBride and so Russell’s motivations are fuzzier, but they seem to have to do with emasculation. Russell is henpecked at home not so much by his Asian wife but by her Korean mother, who screeches at Russell in Korean—which he speaks—whenever they are in the same room. He’s a man on the verge of boiling over, ready to spout curses and evil plans, and so long as he has a target—Gamby, Brown—he thinks he can dominate.
But Russell has underestimated Brown. From the minute she walks into the school, Brown is obviously more qualified for the job than either of the vice principals. She can be quick to anger and cast suspicion, often in the wrong direction, and is callous with the incompetent, but she’s inspiring to her students, thoughtful about education, tough and maternal. Even when Gamby is rolling his eyes at her, the show compliments her. In one episode, she insists that Gamby ease up on the detentions and expulsions, and try to have students talk through their problems in a room with beanbag chairs and popcorn. Gamby is disgusted by this touchy-feely nonsense but osmotically learns how to talk through some of his own problems. Brown is making his life better even as he tries to ruin hers. Brown isn’t some one-note character but the third lead in the show and the series’ hero. Structurally, Vice Principals is a conflict comedy told from the perspective of its losers.
The funniest scenes in Vice Principals are when Gamby and Russell are directing their rage at one another. As in Eastbound and Down, the cursing in Vice Principals is not operatic and grandiose, but full of “asshole” and “motherfucker” on repeat, hilariously capturing how flustered and idiotic the cursers are. In Vice Principals, very rarely, if ever, do characters come up with the perfect retort. But when Gamby and Russell team up and try—haplessly, it should be said—to take down Brown, the comedy gets too heavy to work.
Shitheads can be funny, as Eastbound and Down demonstrated. But in Eastbound, you could root for former professional baseball player and unrepentant redneck Kenny Powers to get his mojo back. There is, for example, a sequence in Eastbound and Down’s fifth episode, when former major-league ball player Kenny gets into a pitch-off with rival Reg Mackworthy (Craig Robinson), that ends with Kenny’s triumph. But Kenny doesn’t strike Reg out: Instead, he clocks him in the face with a fastball so hard it pops Reg’s eye out. Kenny, ecstatic that he got his pitch back, crazed that he defeated his enemy, hopped up on steroids and his own power, begins to desecrate the car dealership where the pitch-off took place. He hums fastballs at people, through car windows, at neon signs. His friends join him. It is deranged, insane, satanically free, and very funny. Kenny’s a maniac. But everyone involved is an asshole, including Reg and Ashley Schaeffer (Will Ferrell), the guy who owns the dealership, and at least Kenny’s our asshole.
Vice Principals has a similar moment of unbridled id, but it left me aghast, not in giggles. Where Kenny Powers is larger than life, Neal and Russell are all too life-size—not Major League exceptions but the workaday rule. In the second episode, Neal and Russell break into Brown’s house to try to get some dirt on her. Finding nothing, Russell starts to break stuff: a plate, a mug. He bullies Neal into breaking things too until Neal is overcome by a kind of bloodlust. In a slavering frenzy, the two lay waste to the house, smashing televisions and tables, sticking chairs into walls, slashing a portrait of Brown and her two sons. And then Russell takes a lighter to the curtains; the house burns to the ground. Where Gamby is acting on animal instinct, Russell understands they can’t leave the house as is: too much evidence.
In this scene, violence acts as a respite for the violent, a few minutes when they don’t have to think, when they answer to no one, when they are kings and can be as destructive as they please. By asking its audience to get caught up in this delirium, Vice Principals wants to demonstrate the lure of this kind of destructive power. I admire the gambit, but I couldn’t go for it. Witnessing a temper tantrum that’s nearly a hate crime is about as funny on TV as it is in the news.