Three episodes down, HBO’s new comedy Vice-Principals has so far sent mixed signals about how good it is. Danny McBride and Walton Goggins star respectively as Neal Gamby and Lee Russell, vice principals at a high school who each fancies himself the next principal when the current one retires. That happens promptly in episode 1, as Principal Welles (Bill Murray in an excellent cameo) leaves to look after his dying wife.
The series has been conceptualised and directed by McBride and Jody Hill, the duo who produced Eastbound & Down, the well-received comedy (also set in an academic institution) that wrapped after four seasons in 2013. The writing on Vice-Principals, though, is lazier than that of its predecessor, seeking to draw out the laughs from little else besides foul language. The first episode drowns in the callow verbal assaults in which Gamby and Russell indulge as they attempt to get one up on each other.
The show is distilled primarily through Gamby, the divorcee parent of a teenage girl, who has staked his happiness and dignity on becoming the principal. As the vice principal in charge of discipline, he is the least liked member of the fraternity, and he makes no effort to endear himself to the staff. In striking contrast is Russell, the dandy smooth talker whose popularity makes it almost certain that he will pip Gamby to the post.
Nothing of the sort happens. It is Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) who is chosen to head the school. Getting an outsider is perhaps the best decision the school board could take, given its awareness of the animosity between Gamby and Russell. But it also leads to a less expected outcome: Gamby and Russell decide to call truce and team up to take Brown down.
Having thus established its premise, the show settles for darker themes that sit uneasily with its comic remit. Episode 2 finds Gamby and Russell in Brown’s house to snoop around, and they proceed to burn the place down. The scene is less funny than horrific, in spite of the laughable antics of two men who are clearly using the poor Brown to mask their own insecurities. That Brown is a black woman makes the dynamic more complex, and critics have wondered if the show’s makers were aware of the cauldron they were stirring up with the racial and gender profile of the target and the perpetrators.
For all that, though, Vice-Principals is not even a very funny show. Episode 3 separates Gamby and Russell as the former forces himself on a school field trip that will have his crush, a teacher named Amanda Snodgrass (Georgia King). The episode is another showcase for the disaster that Gamby’s social skills are – and adds nothing to the central storyline of what he and Russell will next plot against Brown. Watching it, I wondered if McBride was perhaps exploiting his status as showrunner to give himself greater screen time at the cost of narrative flow.
It’s still early days yet. The show is scheduled to have 18 episodes over a two-season run, so it may yet pick up pace. It is likely that the current focus on Gamby is a smokescreen for a big revelation that upends viewer expectations. I have a feeling Russell has something up his sleeve that will be laid bare over the coming episodes. Gamby may be unlikeable but he does not possess Russell’s cunning, and for my money, Russell will take him to the cleaners.