Jody Hill and Danny McBride are among comedy’s most interesting collaborators, and their work often portrays characters who are utterly repulsive on the surface, casual in their racism and sexism, yet compelling enough to border on sympathetic. Their last project, Eastbound & Down, was among the funniest shows HBO has ever produced, featuring an indelible leading turn by McBride as baseball washout Kenny Powers, but Vice Principals feels less immediately hilarious yet more ambitious. Where Kenny Powers was trying to reclaim his former glory as a sports superstar, this is the story of two men scrambling for a minor seat of power, and their clawing desperation makes Vice Principals a more bracing, but instantly addictive, follow-up from this essential comedic duo.
The show’s premise is simple and rife with potential: Neal Gamby (McBride) and Lee Russell (Goggins) are vice principals at a South Carolina high school whose rivalry is intensified by the departure of their boss (Bill Murray, funny and exasperated in a brief role). Both men aggressively pursue the newly vacant principal position, but their efforts are foiled by Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory), a renowned out-of-state educator. With Dr. Brown holding the job they so desperately want, Lee and Russell team up to get their new boss fired.
In less nimble hands, Vice Principals could have been a disaster. After all, this is a show about two white Southern men teaming up to destroy a successful African-American woman by any means necessary. While there are some troubling elements present here, particularly in the frequency with which Gamby and Russell refer to Dr. Brown as a bitch, there’s something more complex at work. One of Jody Hill’s running themes and comedic gold mines is the thoroughly American male, the entitled man whose frustration at his own mediocrity curdles into hatred for everyone above him on the totem pole. Vice Principals is, above all else, a story about the destructive capability of that line of thinking, never celebrating it but often finding the humor in it all the same, and even when it offers sympathy to Gamby or Russell, it has yet to give them a chance for redemption.
With every project, Jody Hill grows as a storyteller, and Vice Principals is smartly staged and wonderfully stylish, propelled by a kinetic percussive score that sounds like the drum line of a caffeine-addled high school marching band. There’s a heavy focus on cringe comedy, with Gamby never failing to go the extra mile to make an ass of himself, but there’s a nimbleness to the humor here; even the ugliest scene can shine thanks to an unexpected escalation or swift narrative pivot. Vice Principals thrives on that visceral unpredictability, which extends to the presumptive villain, Dr. Brown; the show paints her with unexpected complexity, allowing Kimberly Hebert Gregory to play her as a stern and principled educator who can’t help but sadistically flex her authoritative muscle every now and then.
By the end of the three episodes provided for review, Danny McBride and Walton Goggins emerge as one of the year’s strongest team-ups, each of them deploying a perfectly terrible and perfectly complementary brand of awfulness. Gamby is saddled with some truly unforgivable words and actions, and even when it’s stunning that these things are being played for laughs, it’s even more stunning that they’re actually funny thanks to McBride’s masterful comedic timing. McBride also does impressive work behind the camera, directing the third episode of the show with the same deft touch as his collaborators.
Goggins, a perpetually underrated, fantastic actor who almost stole last year’s The Hateful Eight, goes much bigger as the excitable, bowtie-sporting Russell, and Vice Principals perfectly deploys his loquacious charms, allowing him to play utterly ridiculous and greasily charming. The best scenes pair the two characters up, and the chemistry between McBride and Goggins is terrific, especially as the ruthless Russell brings out the worst in Gamby. The show’s supporting cast is equally great, with Shea Whigham, Busy Philipps, and Georgia King standing out among the potential collateral damage in Gamby and Russell’s quest for the principal’s office.
Out of the gate, Vice Principals isn’t the comedic powerhouse that Eastbound & Down was, but it also doesn’t have the compelling, uproarious Kenny Powers at its center. This show has loftier goals and darker jokes, but it still feeds McBride and Goggins enough gut-busting lines to easily qualify as a success. Even if Vice Principals still feels like it’s waiting to fulfill its massive potential, the promise of an already completed two-season, 18-episode story is enticing in today’s cluttered TV landscape, and the promise of Walton Goggins and Danny McBride sharing the screen for all 18 of those episodes is downright irresistible.
Vice Principals premieres tonight on HBO.