HBO’s ‘Vice Principals’ Takes Us On A Power Trip

Great premise. Lousy execution.

It’s perhaps an understatement to say that a lot of people are feeling powerless right now, and this year our TV screens have reflected that impotence right back at us. Outlander’s protagonists spent the entire second season trying to stop an inevitable war; The Americans’ central characters have devoted their lives to a lost cause; Veep’s Selina Meyer spent the show’s fifth season trying, unsuccessfully, to hold onto her presidential victory; on Orange is the New Black, the inmates of Litchfield Penitentiary are rendered more helpless than ever when the prison is privatized; UnREAL’s reality-TV producers Rachel and Quinn struggle to gain control over their show when yet another man is put in charge; and Mr. Robot, which premiered its buzzed-about second season last night, has proved to be a captivating meditation on our collective powerlessness in the face of corporate hegemony.

HBO’s Vice Principals, the new half-hour comedy from Eastbound and Down co-creators Jody Hill and Danny McBride, is the latest entry in the field of frustrated ambitions. The series centers on two high-school vice principals locked in a desperate struggle for authority — a great premise, and a setting that promises bleak hilarity. But Vice Principals, which premieres on Sunday, struggles to cohere into something beyond a middle-aged white man’s temper tantrum in the face of societal change.

At the outset, the series centers on the rivalry between Neal Gamby (McBride) and Lee Russell (Walton Goggins), administrators at a suburban high school in the south who spy an opportunity when the school’s longtime principal steps down. A hefty dude attired in a uniform of navy-blue sweater vests and khakis, Gamby appears to be the polar opposite of the bow-tie-sporting, hip-swinging Lee, who employs a charm offensive than runs counter to Gamby’s no-nonsense, expletive-laced disciplinary style.

But Gamby and Lee soon realize they aren’t so different after all. In the pilot, both are passed over for the coveted role of principal when the superintendent brings in an outside candidate, Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hébert Gregory), to run the school. The arrival of Belinda, a black woman from Philadelphia who’s successfully helmed several high schools, immediately brings Gamby and Lee together to battle their common enemy.

It’s a shame Vice Principals has Gamby and Lee settle so quickly into this reluctant partnership, because their initial squabbling is a highlight of the first episode. “Fuck off,” Lee tells Gamby. “You fuck yourself off,” he sullenly shoots back. I laughed out loud when Gamby takes a handful of silver push-pins off Lee’s desk and feebly tosses them at him, muttering, “Tacks.”

But the set-up of the first episode fails to maintain momentum in the following five that HBO made available for critics. Lee and Belinda barely feature in the third episode, in which Gamby elbows his way onto a field trip to get closer to a pretty blonde teacher, Amanda Snodgrass (Georgia King). The fifth devotes most of its running time to a power struggle between Lee and his body-building neighbor, who refuses to turn down his music while he pumps iron in his garage. Other gags — like when Lee and Gamby accidentally take acid during a high school football game — feel even further removed from the premise. The engine driving this show is the insecurity that radiates off both Gamby and Lee and that pushes them to make one terrible decision after another.

So far, the show feels like one missed opportunity after another. The wonderful Busy Philipps is criminally underused as Gale, whom the HBO press release tactfully describes as Gamby’s “hot, trashy ex-wife.” There are some memorable scenes involving the students, but none of them emerges as a full-fledged character — although we do see two high school students having sex, with the girl’s breasts fully exposed for (intended) comic effect.

That’s the real disappointment of Vice Principals: It’s not very funny. Lee and Gamby’s petulant bickering gets old pretty fast, and even the reliably hilarious McBride isn’t quite enough to sustain the laughs here. Fans of Eastbound and Down will be familiar with McBride’s insolent man-boy shtick, although Gamby is a far less abrasive character than that show’s Kenny Powers — a washed-up former Major League baseball player who returns home to small-town North Carolina and wreaks havoc on his friends and family members.

That Gamby is easier to sympathize with than Kenny makes for a softer show than Eastbound and Down. Gamby genuinely cares about the school, and his frustration over losing his wife and daughter to another man — not to mention his sad little apartment, furnished with a TV, an easy chair, and still-unopened cardboard boxes — suggests that his blustery rage masks a deep insecurity that only makes him more desperate to gain clout at work. In the brief scenes we see of Lee at home with his Asian wife (Susan Park) and her mother, it’s clear he’s plagued by the same feelings of incapacity. “When is it my time, Christine?” he chides his wife when she asks him to tell the neighbor to turn down his music. “When do I just get to relax?”

The episode’s writers (McBride and Eastbound writers John Carcieri and Hayes Davenport) don’t give Christine the chance to defend herself — although you can tell from the medical scrubs she wears that she works, too — an unfortunate tic that spreads to many of the show’s female characters. They’re subject to Gamby’s frequent, flippant attacks, but are rarely given a chance to fight back. The one woman aside from Belinda who’s more than a sketch is Amanda, who by the sixth episode finds herself charmed by Gamby despite her misgivings.

Although Vice Principals appears to lack the merry depravity of Eastbound and Down, it has a nasty undertone, a mean-spiritedness that leaves a bitter aftertaste. In the second episode, Gamby and Lee break into Belinda’s well-appointed home to scoop up some dirt on her and wind up going on a rampage, smashing frames and destroying furniture on the way to burning the house to the ground in a drawn-out, four-minute sequence.

In the next episode, they watch Belinda get out of her car in the school parking lot, trading barbs: “I can see the edge of her fucking Spanx,” Lee snarls. “Look at that, look at that ass.” “Ugh,” Gamby agrees. “I bet when she gets up here she smells like fucked buttholes,” Lee continues. Hilarious.

Maybe it’s just bad timing. Hill and McBride apparently came up with the idea for Vice Principals years ago, before Eastbound and Down. But a series about two angry white men who team up to demolish the educated, qualified black woman who’s “taken” their job feels particularly off-putting these days. Right now, the idea of a blustery man who takes pride in being politically incorrect doesn’t make me want to laugh so much as cry.