First things first: Any fan of “Eastbound & Down” — the last effort from co-creators Jody Hill and Danny McBride — will be pleased if not ecstatic with “Vice Principals.” The comedies are built around similar sensibilities: A power hungry man with an over-inflated ego struggles to fit in with his surroundings as he adjusts to a diminished position at a small-town school.
In “Eastbound & Down,” McBride played a professional baseball player forced out of the league and into a job teaching physical education to high schoolers. Here, he’s a vice principal at war with his fellow VP when the top seat opens up.
You should be able to predict where things go from there — somewhat. “Vice Principals” comes with a few significant surprises. One instrumental choice comes at the end of the first episode, while the rest are of a very specific variety: bein’ nasty. And while the results are often wickedly funny, the question becomes whether or not you should spend time with these two men.
Mean protagonists are nothing new, nor are they an automatic out. “Veep” has taken cruelty to new heights, but it’s all in service of satirizing a political system despised by everyone watching. The men of “Vice Principals” don’t seem to be making any similar points, even if how they delight in tearing one another apart can become an addictive bingeing experience.
McBride stars as Neal Gamby, a brash disciplinarian who’s earned a reputation for being unpopular because of his intolerant reactions to bad behavior. He hands out suspensions like candy on Halloween and does so without thinking twice. Gamby puts on a macho front that’s hysterically, albeit painfully, superficial when push comes to shove (literally — his fistfights are often embarrassingly timid), but he does actually care about the school and its students. He sees his way of “teaching” as producing a positive result, even if he doesn’t actually pay attention to its effects.
His competitor, Lee Russell, is very nearly the opposite. Played with a uniquely vicious effeminacy by Walton Goggins — in a truly outstanding performance — Russell is personable to the point of being flirty, but diabolically two-faced. He’s an unforgiving and unsympathetic character at his core, putting his own ambition ahead of all else — from his direct competition to the school at large.
In an ideal scenario, these guys would be learning more from their peers than the other way around, and there are signs of progress for two characters who at first appear utterly awful. Yet their early actions are, at best, almost unforgivable, and it’s a real struggle to find reasons to support them immediately after, say, Episode 2. And by “support,” I mean watch, because isn’t that what we do when we watch a show? In some way, we’re throwing our own weight behind a show every time we tune in by saying, “Yes, these characters and/or message are worthy of my time and attention.”
I’m certain these men aren’t worthy, but, after six episodes, I remain on the fence regarding “Vice Principals” itself. Hill and McBride’s comedy establishes an awareness that what its characters are doing is wrong. In no way is it endorsing their behavior, but the series’ edges soften a bit when it comes to critiquing them. There are plenty of references to ignorance on Gamby and Russell’s behalf, from racist remarks to overt, continuous sexism and even casually alluded to sexual repression. A Native American mascot is made into a piñata and viciously beaten. Jokes are made about women drivers and sexual harassment runs rampant in the workplace.
“Vice Principals” doesn’t exactly take these subjects head on, as it uses them to define its characters (and grab shocked laughter). In contrast, “Veep” does the same thing to illustrate who its character are, but those choices are always in service of condemning American politics. When Selina does something awful, we see why she does it because of who she is, but we also catch parallels to the real world and understand how these scenarios could be applied to our elected officials’ day-to-day lives. Here, the disposable plot becomes problematic because these characters aren’t easy to root for; their quest doesn’t matter if we don’t want to see anyone win, and that’s hard to ignore if the laughs — which are there — aren’t enjoyable.
If this sounds like your particular cup of coffee, by all means dive in. As to its relevance outside of disposable chuckles, there’s a lot to admire — namely Goggins and Hill’s propulsive direction — in this maniacal, hilarious, ass hole of a show.