As the largely ineffective vice principal of a school that prefers to confront its problems with exasperated shrugs, Neil Gamby (Danny McBride) is spinning his wheels. Worse, he knows it. He’s tired, bored, and frustrated beyond anything he can express via the abbreviated rants he directs at his oblivious students.
But he’s been holding on to one big dream: the assumption that he’s going to be made principal someday. So when Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) swoops in to grab the promotion instead, Gamby dials his anger up to 11.
So begins Vice Principals, HBO’s latest comedy created by McBride and Jody Hill (who also launched HBO’s Eastbound & Down starring McBride’s similarly boiling-over warped character, baseball pitcher Kenny Powers). Gamby, unsure of where to put his anger, ends up finding an outlet in an unlikely friendship with co–vice principal Lee Russell (Justified’s Walton Goggins).
Gamby and Russell’s alliance against Belinda — not to mention McBride and Goggins’s freewheeling chemistry played opposite the fantastic and dry Gregory — forms the backbone of Vice Principals. But throughout the first six episodes, Gamby and Russell’s focused hate is also the least interesting part of the series by a long shot.
This is a show about frustrated jerks taking out their frustration on people, but at least the show knows they’re jerks?
Over the six episodes screened for critics, Russell and Gamby do some truly gross things in the name of taking Belinda down, even though she proves over and over again to be not just an effective principal but the inspirational one this high school desperately needs.
So if you’re cool watching two slacker white dudes fight to take down a completely competent black woman, then you’ll love Vice Principals. If not ... well, the constant stream of Gamby and Russell screaming, "Let’s take the bitch down" — not to mention horrifying real-world consequences — wears thin, and quickly.
And the show knows it.
This is the one thing that keeps this storyline from dragging completely. Vice Principals proves over and over again that it knows exactly how disgusting this anti-Belinda campaign is — not to mention exactly why it’s happening.
Gamby and Russell are fundamentally unhappy people who think they’re owed more than they’ve got, for no reason other than they want more than they’ve got.
Gamby watches his ex-wife (Busy Philipps) and her new Motocross enthusiast husband bond more with Gamby’s preteen daughter than he knows how; at school, he pines for quietly exasperated fellow teacher Amanda Snodgrass (Georgia King).
Russell, meanwhile, loves and hates his wife, Christine (Susan Park), in equal measure. Most of all, though, he doesn’t give a damn about making people miserable, so long as it means giving himself a release. Both men seize every opportunity they can find to take out their shit on anyone that isn’t themselves.
At the very least, McBride and Goggins find something deliciously twisted to chew on in every scene that lets the two of them bounce off each other’s specific weirdness. Goggins, especially, rips into Lee’s sadistic instincts with relish, sashaying around every scene spitting acidic insults like he’s marking his territory — which, of course, is exactly what he’s trying to do.
And every time I thought Vice Principals might be oblivious to how Gamby and Russell aren’t exactly the good guys, the show acknowledged as much. Their melodramatic meltdowns make other teachers uncomfortable. Belinda continues to be terrific at her job. And so it goes.
Sometimes, when Vice Principals takes a step back from Gamby and Russell’s melodramatic scheming to show us the horror on everyone else’s faces, the show is less about two underlings trying to overthrow their leader than about how the kind of resentment they run on festers into something that doesn’t just simmer but can boil over to become actively dangerous.
And in those moments, Vice Principals is so much better than the "Gamby and Russell plot to bring Belinda down" logline it keeps running back to.
Watching Vice Principals can be an exercise in just how much of it you can take, but there’s promise somewhere underneath the vitriol
At first, I didn’t know what would keep me watching Vice Principals past the second episode, in which — spoiler alert — Gamby and Russell’s tantrum throwing leads them to fully burn Belinda’s house to the ground. But since my job required watching all six episodes HBO sent out, I started looking for things outside the Gamby/Lee/Belinda mess that would keep me invested.
To my complete surprise, I found plenty.
Gamby’s reluctant dedication to the school starts to become less about obligation than actual investment in the kids, and his fixation on Amanda slowly but surely becomes less creepy the more he realizes he needs to treat her like a person. (Russell remains a horrible asshole, but Goggins is so fun to watch that I sometimes didn’t register the bile his character spews, which helps!)
Most importantly, Belinda gets more storylines on her own outside of Gamby and Lee’s revenge fantasies, letting Gregory sink her teeth into a character who will no doubt get folded into the main chaos by the end of the season.
Outside of the characters and stories, even, Hill’s direction is refreshingly straightforward, giving the actors room to riff while still keeping an eye on the punchlines. Sometimes the show even dips into surreal sidebars as Gamby and Russell wreak their unholy havoc.
More encouraging still is the idea that there’s a pointed rhyme and reason to how the plot of the show is unfolding. As per McBride, Vice Principals has already shot 18 episodes for two seasons, and the series is not planning to continue past that point. According to Goggins, the first season is very specifically about who these people are, while the second season is going to dive into the why of it all, giving me hope that Vice Principals is telling an actual story rather than just letting Gamby and Russell fuck with people for the fun of it.
So if there’s an end game in mind, and there’s already this much to like six episodes in, Vice Principals could end up being some solid fun to fly through on a lazy Saturday. If it decides to double down on its characters’ grosser instincts, however, it could fade into the list of countless angry-dude-driven comedies that are just angry for the sake of it.
For now, though, I’ll cling to the glimmers of self-awareness Vice Principals has shown so far, and hope the show decides to be more than the most basic version of what it could be.
Vice Principals premieres July 17 at 10:30 pm EST on HBO.