Two and a half years after the conclusion of Eastbound & Down, Danny McBride is back at HBO with a new half-hour comedy series called Vice Principals. HBO brought the first two episodes to SXSW this year, and while they do suggest that the show runs the risk of spiraling out of control with silly and superficial jokes, they also wrap up in a way that suggests that Vice Principals could possibly grow to support that humor.
McBride stars alongside Walton Goggins as the two vice principals of Lincoln High. Lee Russell (Goggins) is all smiles and struts around school donning some very snazzy suits whereas Neal Gamby (McBride) is loud, obnoxious and has a habit of making scenes when disciplining the students. When the principal (Bill Murray) is forced to retire, Gamby and Russell assume it’s a battle between the two of them to replace him so do everything in their power to sabotage the other and score the gig. However, when the superintendent reveals that he’s bringing in the celebrated Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) for the job, they decide to push their differences aside and work together to bring her down.
As one might expect, McBride and Goggins make a brilliant pair, but you do need to wade through tons of unoriginal and repetitive gags in order to get to the more promising material. The idea of two vice principals fighting for a vacant principal position makes for a strong start, but Gamby and Russell’s insult driven back-and-forths grow tiresome fast. There are also some especially hateful arguments. And while some jokes may earn laughs, they also make it tough to like the characters. A good deal of the comedy in the first episode also relies on very familiar and touchy topics – in fact, it manages to squeeze in jokes about bullying, guns and anti-feminism in a matter of minutes. Perhaps it’d be nice to find some levity in such subject matter once in a while, but Vice Principals addresses them in such uninspired, heavy-handed ways that the jokes aren’t funny, and also feel rather inappropriate.
However, the show starts heading in a better direction as it shifts its attention to Gamby’s family. He’s divorced, but spends a good deal of time with his daughter so he has to cross paths with his ex-wife and her new husband a lot. After so much heightened, rapid fire humor, Gamby’s genuine relationship with Janelle (Maya G. Love) is extremely refreshing. He loves her and she puts up with his nonsense in a way that sells Gamby as a guy who means well but has a habit of doing crazy things, and that’s the kind of character you can get behind. Gamby also has an amusing relationship with his ex’s husband, Ray (Shea Whigham). Whereas one might expect there to be some serious tension between the two, it’s actually only coming from Gamby. Ray couldn’t be more loving and supportive, but every time he does a good deed for Gamby, Gamby snaps back with something insulting or condescending. The show repeats this bit pretty frequently, but it works because there’s more to it than one-liners; there’s real appeal and texture to their relationship.
As the show progresses, Gamby and Russell’s relationship also starts to show signs of heading in a similar direction. The two continue to dish out jokes, but once Belinda Brown steps into the picture and the two start their alliance, most of the humor is rooted in who they are and what they’re trying to achieve, which serves the characters well. There’s still some wild and deplorable behavior, like a certain something Russell does in the second episode that’s just pure evil, but by that point, Vice Principals has a much clearer tone and it’s also weaving in those outlandish antics in a way that enriches the characters and pushes the story forward.
Vice Principals’ sense of humor isn’t for everyone and after that rocky start, there is definitely some concern that the show might fall back on obnoxious and off-putting zingers. But, if things continue on the path that the second episode started, there’s a chance the show could wind up exploring some more appealing and interesting territory down the line.
Click here to catch up on all of our SXSW 2016 coverage thus far or peruse links to our reviews below:
- Don’t Breathe
- Everybody Wants Some
- In a Valley of Violence
- Midnight Special
- Operation Avalanche
- Sausage Party
- Secrets of The Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey
- The Trust