HBO’s “Vice Principals” caught some critics by surprise for what seemed to be a tone-deaf depiction of two middle-aged white men taking on their superior: An African-American woman.
At HBO’s portion of the Television Critics Association press tour on Saturday, the show’s cast and producers were asked to explain the storyline, which seems all the more out of place right now as Americans grapple with issues of race relations.
In the second episode of “Vice Principals,” the characters played by Danny McBride and Walton Goggins – angry that they were passed over for the job of Principal at their high school – set fire to the house of the woman (played by Kimberly Hebert Gregory) who wound up with the job.
READ MORE: Watch: Danny McBride and Walton Goggins Go to War in First Trailer for HBO’s ‘Vice Principals’
But Gregory, who is African-American, defended the storyline, and said she took the role because she believed it actually showed some casting diversity. “I want to be in a space where I can fight two white men,” she said. “This is actually what equality looks like,” Gregory said. “And there’s an inherent question about her ability to be strong enough to stand with these people. It’s about power. And it’s not about race. And it’s not necessarily about gender.”
McBride and fellow executive producer Jody Hill said they were aware of the inherent issues of race in the story from the beginning.
“I think it would be underestimating the show to assume that we’re just going for laughs with this,” McBride said. “I think we’re well aware of what the optics of that look like, and that’s part of the story. These guys make a very bad choice, and it haunts them for the rest of the series.”
READ MORE: ‘Vice Principals’ Review Roundup: Critics Give Danny McBride’s New HBO a Passing Grade, but It Doesn’t Make Honor Roll
Goggins added that he was surprised about the criticism. “It’s really about so much more,” he said. “It’s a condemnation, really, about our society and kind of how that works and how people are rewarded for it. And the last thing I’ll say on that issue is the most well adjusted person in this cast is played by Kimberly, and she’s the one with the doctorate. So the two people who don’t have the right to sit in that principal’s chair are motivated to take it over through fear and intimidation.”
Meanwhile, McBride confirmed his earlier statements that “Vice Principals” wouldn’t continue beyond the show’s initial 18 episodes.
“We always told [HBO] that,” McBride said. “Having that rule and working this to a finale as opposed to trying to, like, think of a backdoor escape, it just made us be a little bit more honest with the storytelling.”
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