In HBO’s meticulously unhinged new comedy, Danny McBride and Walton Goggins play the titular seconds-in-command at a typical American high school. They’re an ideal frenemy pair. McBride’s Neal Gamby is the divorced dreamer rocking saggy khakis and floppy short sleeves under a school sweater, an old-fashioned enforcer loathed by teachers and feared by students. Goggins is his white-collar nemesis Lee Russell, a gift-of-gab schemer with a hipster-WASP wardrobe of Luciferian blazers and jeans tight enough to strangle. Their boss — guest star Bill Murray! — is retiring; his petty lieutenants both expect a promotion. Instead, the school board selects Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory), leading Gamby and Russell into an unholy alliance.
Co-created by McBride and his Eastbound & Down cohort Jody Hill, Vice Principals continues that show’s fascination with American men behaving badly. Hill and McBride have an unusual rhythm: They make subtle comedies about rampantly unsubtle people. I enjoyed Eastbound and was also frequently frustrated by it. McBride’s Kenny Powers was a lampoon of frathouse dudery, and then he became a frat icon. The frathouse knows no irony, and any deconstruction of man-child clichés is just one kegstand away becoming a celebration of man-child clichés.
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This new show starts off slower, but with a more complicated worldview. McBride is still McBride, but his Neal Gamby is a downward riff on the Kenny Powers persona. Kenny was a has-been; Gamby is perpetually one moment away from realizing that he’s a never-was. Pairing him up with Goggins gives Vice Principals some real stakes. Goggins almost looks like he’s from a different species: lean, serpentine, choosing every word carefully. But the whole show is practically stolen by the casually imperial Gregory, who makes Dr. Brown by turns maternal and despotic. The pilot episode is leisurely paced, but stick around through the whole thing, and you’re rewarded with a hell of a payoff (a scene between Gregory and McBride where she makes it very clear who is in control of the school).
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Vice Principals begins with an image of the American flag waving in the wind, and having seen the first two episodes, it feels like McBride and Hill have cottoned to something intangible yet essential in this turbulent election year: the destructive resentment of the Great American Male, beset on all sides by the crashing wave of history. Dr. Brown is a black woman, Gamby and Russell both different flavors of impotent white dude-ness; the show doesn’t quite call attention to this, but it carefully tracks the deep cultural frustration both men feel, personally and professionally.
Episode 1 promises a slow burn — but by episode 2, fires are starting. McBride has announced that Vice Principals is an 18-episode closed saga, and there’s a clarity of purpose in the opening episodes of the show, a sense that things are hitting the ground running — and, quite possibly, going straight to hell.