When I speculated as to the lows HBO’s new original series VICE PRINCIPALS would stoop to in my initial impressions of the show, but I had no idea just how twisted the series would get. As someone who is put off by the spitefulness of the likes of GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS or some of the meaner-spirited Adam Sandler films, I had every reason to be worried how I would continue to sympathize with the characters in the dog-eat-dog world McBride created. By the end of the second episode alone, our main characters break into, desecrate, and burn their hapless boss’s house to the ground. And I loved every second of it. What VICE PRINCIPALS lacks in tact, sensitivity, or compassion, it more than makes up for in the sheer frenzy with which it carries out each and every scene, and it’s safe to say that this is the best and boldest thing to come out of HBO in a long time.
VICE PRINCIPALS’s premise may well be it’s greatest strength. Vice Principals Gamby (McBride) and Russell (Goggins) are at each other’s throats over who will succeed their former boss (guest appearance by Bill Murray) as the principal of North Jackson High School. However, when the school board appoints outsider Belinda Brown (Hebert) to the post instead, the two veeps unite to get her kicked out of office. While other works have tried tackling the machinations of running a school, VICE PRINCIPALS, much like its leading duo, has its priorities elsewhere. Neither Gamby nor Russell pretend to care about the students at their school. For them, the only thing that matters is getting a seat at that coveted desk. The school setting is merely a playground in which these bureaucratic sociopaths are given free reign, and it’s in this important sense that VICE PRINCIPALS is more akin to HOUSE OF CARDS than THOSE WHO CAN’T.
This school is anything but guns-free
In fact, while VICE PRINCIPALS plays its savagery for laughs, the resulting intrigue and drama is enough to put GAME OF THRONES to shame. As Gamby and Russell’s plot to dethrone Brown grows in desperation, so too do the stakes involved. Though becoming principal would undoubtedly impress both his estranged daughter and the faculty member he is courting (King), Gamby increasingly realizes that his race to the top may jeopardize other aspects of his life, namely the friendships he has unwittingly fostered with Russell and, yes, Brown (even as he repeatedly stabs her in the back.) This moral quandary drives the series and becomes more compelling than Gamby and Russell’s plan itself, as it’s what prevents the show from devolving into mindless brutality.
Yet while Gamby (and to a lesser degree, Brown) are excellently realized, the same can’t be said for the rest of the cast. Gamby’s ex, as well as her lovable new husband, simply don’t get enough attention, to the point that it’s difficult to actually describe them as characters. Other recurring faculty members, like Gamby’s feeble secretary and a cafeteria worker Gamby frequently commiserates with, are simply one-dimensional, existing only for McBride to bounce lines off of, which is odd given their allotted screentime.
Most criminal in his underutilization is Russell himself. Goggins is an exceptional performer, charging each of his scenes with an electricity that even McBride can’t match. Even conceptually, the idea of a vitriolic, Southern metrosexual living at odds with his breadwinning Korean wife and her cantankerous mother is absolutely brilliant. And yet, in what can only be described as VICE PRINCIPALS’s biggest blunder, Russell is treated as a B character, a razor-tongued devil whose only purpose is to foil Gamby’s blunt approach. This flaw, the dogged insistence on portraying an ensemble cast solely through Gamby’s lens, is the sole weakness holding the show back from perfection.
That and the Neiman Marcus Summer catalogue frequently on display
Yes, there are other bumps in the road as well. Episode 3, “Field Trip,” serves no utility to the greater story. Plotlines that are brought up are carried out half-heartedly at best later on, and the lack of Russell is especially painful here. In addition, Bill Murray’s cameo in the pilot is slightly distracting from the essence of VICE PRINCIPALS, given that he’s a no-show for the rest of the season and rather inefficiently used for the short time that he is present. But as far as detractors go, a single weak episode and a frivolous celebrity appearance is getting off pretty lightly in the current climate of television.
Gaffs aside, VICE PRINCIPALS is a brilliant exercise in dialogue. As most of scenarios Gamby and Russell find themselves in are fairly standard for the genre, if not brilliantly executed for what they are (I challenge you to find a better acid trip scene from this year), it’s up to the pair’s banter to carry the day. Yet for a shared comedic repertoire that almost never strays from the field of put downs, condescension, and diatribe, it’s incredible that the humor in this show is consistently fresh and on-point. Additional kudos must be given to the writers for constantly pushing the boundaries of offensive speech without ever breaching the boundaries of what may be considered bigoted or hateful.
What do you take us for? Cable?
VICE PRINCIPALS was easily the biggest surprise of this summer. The show breathes new life into both the workplace and school comedy, and I’m positively dying to know where the show will go from here. Though this first season has some confused priorities, the foundations have been set for what will most certainly be one of the most entertaining shows on TV moving forward, and this is a report card McBride and friends should be proud to hang on the refrigerator door.