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HBO’s Vice Principals does more to explain Trump's rise than any show on TV. It's great.

The summer’s most misunderstood show dives, hilariously, into America’s worst impulses.

Vice Principals
Danny McBride (left) and Walton Goggins star in HBO’s Vice Principals.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for September 18 through 24 is "End of the Line," the first season finale of HBO’s Vice Principals.

Why do we struggle, so often, with the idea of comedy protagonists not being good people — or even simply the idea of them doing terrible things?

We’ll watch drama protagonists kill people or destroy lives or cheat on their spouses and barely bat an eye. But the second Enlightened’s Amy Jellicoe or Girls’ Hannah Horvath starts fucking things up for everybody in her life, look out. Everybody from viewers to critics to casual fans starts wondering if the show understands how awful said character comes off.

To a degree, this likely stems from how intimate most TV comedy is. Drama takes place in the realm of the epic, while comedy generally exists in the tiny spaces between people, the relationships that make up so much of our lives. So to see those relationships used and abused makes us wary.

Or, put another way, it’s a lot easier to remember a time we’ve screwed over a friend than it is to remember a time we blew up a nursing home.

But this sort of "Do these people know how terrible their characters are being?" conversation reached new heights with HBO’s dark, dark comedy Vice Principals, in which the protagonists burned down somebody’s house and there was endless conversation about if the show knew what they were doing was wrong.

Short version: Of course it did. Long version: Vice Principals is brilliantly skewering our current national conversation about race, white guy anger, and cultural privilege. It’s bitter, nasty, hilarious, and borderline genius. It’s the pressure release valve I needed in this summer of Trump.

Vice Principals fits perfectly into the previous work of its creators

Vice Principals
Gamby and Russell hope to bring down Dr. Belinda Brown, their new boss.

First things first: Not everything about Vice Principals works. Its main love story cuts a few corners here and there, and the finale works a little too hard to veer from the moment of its main characters’ ultimate triumph to the dark turn that will propel us into season two. (Arriving next year, it will be the show’s final season — from the start, Vice Principals was planned as an 18-episode series split over two years).

And to be clear, Vice Principals also works far better in a binge than it does week to week. I watched it in two big chunks and was less thrown by it than those who watched week to week and seemed alarmed by the thought of the show somehow condoning some of the worst things its characters did. While in general I’m skeptical of "don’t judge it until you’ve seen it all!" approaches to episodic television, I get why creators of certain shows — like this one! — use them.

But that messy space — where you wonder just how much the show is okay with its characters’ most awful impulses — is exactly where the works of Jody Hill and Danny McBride live, and exactly what make them acquired tastes. Hill’s film Observe and Report features Seth Rogen as a security guard who’s a hero in his own head. It’s sort of Taxi Driver reimagined as cringe comedy, and to say it wasn’t to everybody’s tastes would be an understatement.

What Vice Principals does better than any other show or film Hill and McBride have made (a list that includes the cult favorite Eastbound & Down, the two’s first outing on HBO) is dig into what makes its characters do such awful things.

It’s superficially easy to read the show’s central story in terms of racial strife: White dudes Neal Gamby (McBride) and Lee Russell (the absolutely tremendous Walton Goggins), the vice principals of the title, lash out viciously at Dr. Belinda Brown (a terrific Kimberly Hebert Gregory), the black woman who was named principal instead of them. They shout about how she’s a bitch. They plot their revenge. They, yes, burn down her house. For all McBride and Hill’s protestations that none of this is meant to be read via racial politics, well, it’s not like that reading’s not in there.

But the show transcends its think-piece-waiting-to-happen quality by treating all of its characters as individual human beings, rather than the larger groups they stand in for. Both Gamby and Russell’s deep-seated anger and frustration with their lives comes from somewhere, just as Dr. Brown’s attempts to hold her life together are constantly thwarted by outside forces, pushing her to greater and greater frustration of her own. The show’s greatest message is that being an asshole just breeds other assholes — as when we meet Russell’s bullying next-door neighbor and realize where his frustrations stem from.

Indeed, the show’s one seemingly satisfied character is Ray (Shea Whigham), the blue-collar second husband of Gamby’s ex-wife. He doesn’t seem to want too much he already doesn’t have, and he exudes a weird peacefulness. In Vice Principals, as in so much of McBride and Hill’s work, to want something more, something that exceeds your grasp, is to open yourself up to doing the very worst things you’re capable of.

The season finale explores the show’s deeper themes

Vice Principals.
Danny McBride has the perfect look of buttoned-down frustration for the part.

The standard line against Vice Principals from its critics who acknowledge Hill and McBride’s nuance but also don’t terribly enjoy the show is, essentially, "Why?" Why, in 2016, should we be so interested in exploring the interior lives of frustrated white guys, when we’re buried in the middle of an election cycle that’s asking us to do so 24/7?

In "End of the Line," though, Vice Principals tips its hat toward where it’s going. Gamby and Russell, having finally pushed Brown out of her job, thanks to a bit of blackmail, ascend to interim co-principals. Gamby feels a pang of conscience at what he’s done; Russell clearly does not.

But the damage is done, and it’s not as if Gamby doesn’t want the job.

And yet it’s Gamby who ultimately suffers. After seemingly the best day of his life, in which he both gets the big job and a passionate kiss from his love interest, he discovers both he and Russell’s cars on fire in the parking lot. He assumes, naturally, it’s revenge for having burned Dr. Brown’s house down.

But when he approaches, a costumed figure who looks nothing like Dr. Brown shoots him twice, leaving him bleeding on the ground. Karma, it would seem, is striking back all at once, and whatever’s happening is as intent on punishing Gamby as he was on punishing Dr. Brown.

McBride has said in interviews that season one of Vice Principals cribbed from John Hughes, the famous chronicler of high school life, but season two will be far more influenced by Brian De Palma, whose violence-ridden, blood-spattered films flirt, frequently, with tilting into outright exploitation.

With that and the abrupt shift into gunfire in the closing moments of season one in mind, the series has underlined its main theme: No matter who you are, the system is going to pit you against others and ultimately grind you down to nothing.

Vice Principals is a little bit like Girls — really

Vice Principals
As you can surely tell from this photo.

I’ve taken to describing Vice Principals as "Girls, but with middle-aged white men" to people who are on the fence about watching it. It’s mostly an exaggeration for effect, but there’s some truth there.

Like Girls, Vice Principals is intent on making you think deeply about why its characters behave as horribly to each other as they do, and like Girls, it’s easy to be a little nauseated by the prospect of having to delve into their brains. And like Girls, Vice Principals seems to actively push away as many people as embrace it.

But also like Girls, Vice Principals is saved by its specificity. Gamby and Russell aren’t the all-purpose "white guy" villains of identity politics think pieces, who usually have some sort of class advantage, in addition to their other forms of privilege.

No, these two vice principals are the very middle of the middle class. They live in South Carolina. They’re desperately clinging to whatever rung of the economic ladder they’re on, defining themselves as much against lower-class figures like Ray as anybody else. They do horrible things, yes, but the show really wants you to understand why they do those things.

And maybe that’s not your cup of tea. I get it. But we also live in a world where various Gambys and Russells have pushed Donald Trump, somebody whose message is, effectively, "I know how much you hate your perch on the ladder, and I won’t help you any further up it, but I’ll be damned if I don’t make sure nobody else joins you there," to a major party nomination for president. (And despite that, I have my doubts Russell, especially, would vote Trump.)

Vice Principals — almost entirely accidentally! — has tapped into that frustration, that regret, that resentment. It may not be easy or pleasant viewing, but it’s essential all the same. If there were ever a time when it was worth pondering why Gamby and Russell feel the way they do, it’s now.

Vice Principals will return in 2017. All of season one is available on HBO Go.

Correction: Vice Principals is set in South Carolina, not North Carolina. Sometimes you type the wrong Carolina!

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