Josh Reviews Vice Principals Season One!
I remember reading about The Foot Fist Way, the 2006 low-budget film directed by Jody Hill and starring Danny McBride. It got a lot of positive press and so I tracked it down and saw it during the film’s limited run in theatres. It was very funny and very uncomfortable. This seems to be the combination of feelings that Mr. Hill and Mr. McBride have continued to pursue over the course of all of their fruitful collaborations. Honest admission: I totally missed Eastbound and Down (their previous television collaboration) — the first season has been sitting on my DVD shelf for years but for some reason (not lack of interest) I’ve never gotten to it. Someday. But ever since The Foot Fist Way I have been paying attention to the work of these two. Jody Hill directed Observe and Report, a deeply weird and deeply unsettling comedy starring Seth Rogen, and of course Danny McBride has been killing it in a variety of comedic roles in films over the past decade, including Tropic Thunder, Pineapple Express, Your Highness, 30 Minutes or Less, This is the End, and many more. The two reunited for the two-season HBO show, Vice Principals.
In Vice Principals, Danny McBride plays Neal Gamby, while Walton Goggins plays Lee Russell. Both men are Vice Principals at North Jackson High School, and they each believe that they should be promoted to principal when the school’s long-standing leader, Principal Welles (played by Bill Murray in a note-perfect cameo in the first episode) retires. However, the school board decides to bring in someone else entirely to be the new principal: college professor Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory). Shocked by this turn of events, Vice Principal Gamby and Vice Principal Russell agree to team up to take down Dr. Brown.
This nine-episode first season (the show is reportedly structured to run for only two nine-episode seasons, with the second season coming some time next year) is, exactly as I had expected, powerfully funny and also profoundly uncomfortable. This is a raunchy, pull-no-punches show, and this tone is certainly not for everyone. But I loved it. I had a great time watching these first nine episodes and I can’t wait to see what sort of craziness the back half brings.
Danny McBride has made a career out of playing this type of character: a profane, low-watt-bulb man-child who comes off as loud and blustery but is sweet and insecure on the inside. Neal Gamby feels like the apotheosis of these character traits; this is the most Danny McBride character Danny McBride has ever played. It’s great fun — and often stomach-churningly painful — to watch. Watching this character do and say terrible things that no one responsible for working with children should ever do or say is very, very funny in a shocking sort of way. The show positions Mr. Gamby as the character who we are most rooting for, and Mr. McBride is able to always show us the likeable core at Mr. Gamby’s heart, but this also makes it deeply painful watching him fumble even the most basic sorts of social interactions, constantly shooting himself in the foot even when events have somehow come together in a way that might allow him to actually get ahead.
An aside: I could probably write a whole separate essay on the careful balancing act that must be maintained when writing this type of character. The show works hard to show us that Mr. Gamby isn’t just a brash cartoon, but an understandable human being with real feelings inside. This is a good thing, in my opinion. But this means that the show must carefully modulate Mr. Gamby’s stupidity, and here the show does make a few mis-steps. For instance, I can understand Mr. Gamby overreacting in his interactions with the young, handsome teacher Bill Hayden, as those overreactions are driven by Mr. Gamby’s insecurities and his feeling threatened by Mr. Hayden. So while Mr. Gamby is stupid and rude in those situations — in an over-the-top way that probably (hopefully) wouldn’t happen in real life but that gives the show some big laugh moments — I can understand that behavior in the context of the character. But, on the other hand, when Mr. Gamby brings the top-secret binder that Mr. Russell made about Amanda Snodgrass, the pretty new teacher for whom Mr. Gamby has a huge crush, along on a field trip with her, and carries the binder in plain site, and even reads it on the school bus only a few seats away from her, and then discards it on top of a tiny garbage can where it can easily be found (and of course later is), that is behavior that is so late-season Homer Simpson-level stupid that it is jarring to watch, and doesn’t work as well with the character the show is trying to create. OK, end aside.
Danni McBride is terrific but going into this show I expected nothing less. For me, it is Walton Goggins who is a revelation as Gamby’s rival-turned-reluctant-partner Lee Russell. I have seen Mr. Goggins be terrific in dramas (most recently as a racist redneck in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight) but I had no idea he would be so spectacular at comedy. Mr. Goggins KILLS here in Vice Principals. He is so funny, so over-the-top crazy, and I loved every second of his performance. While Danny McBride’s Neal Gamby can be a loud, profane brute, Walton Goggins’ Lee Russell is a deranged sociopath whose prim-and-proper exterior conceals a coiled serpent underneath. I thought it would take the run of the first season before we saw these characters egging one another on to some truly horrific behavior, but I believe it’s only in the second episode that we see Lee (and a reluctant Mr. Gamby) burn down Dr. Brown’s house, and things just get crazier from there. Vice Principals is at its best in the scenes that Mr. McBride and Mr. Goggins play together. I love the chemistry between those two actors and those two characters.
As Dr. Brown, the (at first) unsuspecting victim of Mr. Gamby and Mr. Russell’s machinations, Kimberly Hebert Gregory is perfect. I love how the show develops her character as this first run of episodes progressed. The show skillfully plays with the audience’s sympathies in terms of Dr. Brown as the season moves forward. At first she’s just a fun target for the “heroes” of the show, then when they burn her house down I quickly started to feel sorry for this poor woman being beset by these maniacs. That sympathy continued as we learned more about her boys and her ex-husband and the past she had tried to leave behind when accepting this new principal position, though on the other hand we also see her be very tough, almost cruel, to Mr. Gamby, which occasionally shifts my sympathies back to him. This is great story-telling, keeping all the characters somewhat three-dimensional, with good and bad sides, even in the midst of all of the jaw-dropping, outlandish behavior that goes down over the course of this season.
I’ve already described Walton Goggins as a revelation, but I feel I need to say the same thing about Shea Whigham as Ray, the new husband of Mr. Gamby’s ex-wife Gale. I’ve always enjoyed Mr. Whigham’s work (most recently he was Sharon Carter’s tough boss on the first season of Agent Carter), but as with Mr. Goggins I was most used to seeing Mr. Whigham in dramas. But he was spectacular playing a comedic role here, almost unrecognizable buried behind a busy beard and a lazy drawl. The threatening new love-interest of one’s ex is a familiar character trope, but Mr. Whigham (assisted by smart writing) puts a terrificly unexpected spin on the idea of this character by giving us the soft-spoken, super-nice Ray, who takes all of Mr. Gamby’s profane abuse without batting an eye. It’s a great character, and a great performance.
And hey, Busy Phillips (Freaks and Geeks) is also terrific as Mr. Gamby’s ex-wife Gale! Watching her repeatedly take down Gamby with just a disdainful look never got old.
The season’s final two episodes closed things on a somewhat melancholy note, as everyone’s bad behavior had gotten out of hand and things weren’t looking great for any of the characters. This was a surprising twist; not at all how I’d expected this first run of episodes to end, but I like the way this show could continue to surprise me. I am 100% on-board and waiting eagerly for this story to conclude in the second season. The final minutes of the finale suggest the shape that the upcoming episodes might take (with the tables now turned against Mr. Gamby and Mr. Russell), and I can’t wait to see what happens.