The refinement, though, was clear: Gamby’s character shifted from an ignorant, malicious buffoon to a decent guy who’d briefly gone mad with power. He listened to the wrong voice for far too long, and now he’s trapped by past mistakes and a new friend who’s a very bad influence.
That left Lee Russell to be the single baddest mofo in the school, and the audience to imagine him as the prince of evil. The association exponentially benefits from how well Walton Goggins infuses Russell’s disturbing antics with absolute jubilation. Whenever Lee crosses a moral line — like when he buys donuts for a group of girls with the stipulation to “eat ’em, throw ’em up, and enjoy your breakfast” — Goggins’ eyes twinkle with satisfaction. He’s not just wicked by nature. He loves being bad.
And yet “Vice Principals” devotes at least one episode to dwelling in the devil’s complexity. Lee tries to throw himself a birthday party amidst a troubling fight with his wife, Christine (Susan Park). To say things don’t go as planned would be an understatement, and watching Russell weep certainly creates some momentarily misplaced empathy.
But it’s just for a second. Seeing Russell confronted with the worst-case scenario and bouncing back to be more nefarious than ever only solidifies his true identity: He’s the devil. Audiences can laugh when he’s in pain and delight when he’s depraved. They can appreciate Goggins’ extreme performance because he’s always, always, always supposed to be a despicable figure. They can enjoy the ride while hoping, in the end, Gamby can still save his soul.
Early on, “Vice Principals” ties its central mystery — who shot Gamby? — into its protagonist’s path to redemption. Gamby’s quest to find his killer pushes him to confront his past decisions and make amends. He makes progress, but he’s hampered by his loyalty to Russell. Whenever Russell’s around, Gamby gets sucked down just a bit, pulled back into dangerous territory he’s trying to escape. One episode shows what Gamby’s capable of when he’s left on his own, and by the end of the seven episodes provided for critics (out of nine), it’s clear he needs to escape Russell.
Did he already sell his soul? Has it been lost to the dark lord? These are the true stakes of “Vice Principals,” if you’re willing to invest in a little white lie. Obviously, Russell isn’t really the devil. The series remains firmly footed on earth, where watching bad men doing bad things can still prove tiresome and redundant. It’s far less interesting to face the reality where “Vice Principals” is fine, familiar entertainment — even if viewed as the allegory some have proposed — and Russell is just as human as Gamby. It’s just so much more fun to pretend he’s not.
“Vice Principals” Season 2 premieres Sunday, September 17 at 10:30 p.m. on HBO.