THE SEASON 4/5
“Just remember: it’s all about the students.
It’s not about…you two.”
The longtime principal of a suburban high school steps down, leading ambitious vice principals Neal Gamby (Danny McBride) and Lee Russell (Walton Goggins) to both set their sights on the vacated top spot. But when new rival Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hébert Gregory) enters the picture, these bitter antagonists must form an unholy alliance to bring down the outsider by any means necessary.
Dark comedies are a tough nut to crack, which is why it’s not the most popular sub-genre to visit. Most people don’t like dark themes that make them feel uneasy or conflicted. And those that do don’t like to see elements of comedy mixed in, as it threatens to delegitimize the darkness to which they responded in the first place. As Vice Principals begins, it’s not immediately clear that, over it’s nine episodes, a dark comedy is what you’ll essentially be getting. With Neal Gamby (Danny McBride) and Lee Russell (Walton Goggins) trading barbs and middle fingers behind the back of the outgoing principal Mr. Welles (a small appearance from Bill Murray), the opening moments of Vice Principals suggests a more typically foul-mouthed, adult-centric comedy show filled with wry characters making wry insults toward each other.
Vice Principals is not that. At least, not entirely. Once you move beyond the pilot, which sets a tone that seems like a harder-edged screwball comedy, Vice Principals incrementally turns on the darkness, painting our lead VPs as selfish, ego-centric, depraved, ultra-cynical, and in some situations, without boundaries of human decency.
Taking the light cynicism and selfishness of Seinfeld’s foursome and marrying it to the dark confliction of gray-area characters like Tony Soprano, Walter White, and Jax Teller – people who did despicable things, and who weren’t necessarily “good” people – Vice Principals is a surface allegory for “every man for himself,” but when digging a little deeper, manages to be about much more. Backing up this layered look at the culture of the modern workplace, regardless of its environment, is the casting of Kimberly Hébert Gregory as Dr. Belinda Brown, the unexpected replacement for Principal Welles, who swoops in and takes the job that Gamby and Russell felt belonged to them. Such a thing to happen to two men who had put in their time and felt they were owed the job would ordinarily be bad enough, but for said job to be taken by a woman – a black woman – suggests a subtle added sense of resentment and bitterness shared by our two VPs.
On top of that, neither man’s home life seems to offer much stability. Gamby, divorced, goes home to his unfurnished apartment every night while Russell is forced to share his house with his Korean mother-in-law whom he hates, and who hates him. At North Jackson High is where both men feel in their element, and where they feel like they can spread their proverbial wings and wrench whatever purpose there is from their lives, even if that’s based on making life for their VP counterpart hell, or engaging in mind games among the faculty and student population.
Vice Principals is at its best when presenting the cast as an ensemble. McBride, who effectively falls back on his usual overbearing self-inflated sense of self, goes over the line a few too many times in terms of pure unlikability, threatening to ruin the goodwill both his performance and the show’s writing establishes during his quieter and emotionally driven moments. However, the chemistry he shares with Goggins is what gives Vice Principals its strength. (This is most evident during “The Field Trip,” which sees the episode riding mostly on McBride’s shoulders and which has him at his most agonizingly obnoxious.) Together, they earn the series’ biggest laughs as well as the occasional sense of reward when they manage to come together, depend on each other, and even – gasp – become friends. McBride does the dick thing well, but Goggins superbly manages to outdick him while not sacrificing the audience’s fondness for him. Goggins’ VP is incredibly charming, whose fay mannerisms and flamboyant wardrobe counteract his nastier moments, resulting in a character more memorable and interesting than the leading role essayed by McBride. However, make no mistake: it’s Kimberly Hébert Gregory as Dr. Brown who gives Vice Principals its balls as well as its heart. Her performance is phenomenal – equal parts menacing, vulnerable, unhinged, and hilarious. The mother of two unruly teen boys, the (ex-?)wife of a cheating husband who caused her to uproot her kids and move from Philadelphia to North Carolina, and the brand new principal of a school headed up by a dysfunctional faculty, you have very different reactions to Dr. Belinda Brown throughout the season. You will hate her, love her, fear her, empathize with her, support her, want to see her taken down at the same time you want to see her spared. And it’s all due to Gregory’s award-worthy performance. (Special shoutout to Shea Whigham as Ray, the “new” father to Gamby’s daughter, whom the series could have easily painted as the typical dick, but is actually the kindest and most decent character in the show.) (Also, Shea Whigham needs to be in everything.)
Vice Principals, which will return for a second season, is poised to be more interesting, chaotic, and possibly darker than its first. Gamby and Russell, based on their devious actions, are fated to find themselves in a world of shit that makes the hyperbolic castration by Dr. Belinda Brown seem tame in comparison. It’s going to be angrier, scarier, and more awkward than ever. I can’t wait.
THE PICTURE 5/5
Vice Principal’s video presentation on Blu-ray is fantastic. Bright colors, a stable picture, excellent clarity, and frequently dynamic and interesting images consistently make the show an enjoyable watch. In particular, Goggins’ pretty-boy wardrobe, up to and including his salmon-colored pants, are among the many images that pop off the screen. Great pains have been made to ensure that nothing unattractive or dirty ever appear on screen, as I assume the show runners consciously decided to leave all the dirtiness to the actions of our characters and their hideous, profane dialogues. Meaning, it’s an attractive environment to be in, but only because everyone’s natures are so ugly.
THE SOUND 4/5
The audio presentation is nearly equally great, only losing points during the penultimate episode during which Belinda’s dialogue gets a little lost in the loud ambience of the bar where she’s sharing a drink (kind of) with Gamby. Otherwise the audio is great, utilizing an eclectic soundtrack of music as well as the slightly unusual choice to have an almost electronic-based synthesizer musical score, which is generally more indicative of a sci-fi or throwback slasher flick. But the score definitely works, especially when complementing certain sequences elevated drama. And of course, dialogue is front and center – every “fuck,” every putdown, every racial slur.
THE SUPPLEMENTS 3/5
Supplements are a little light for this release, although every episode contains an audio commentary with the appropriate participants. And the gag reel shows off the usual collection of banter, screw-ups, and mugging for the camera.
The complete list of special features is as follows:
- Audio commentaries with cast and crew on all nine episodes
- Deleted scenes
- Gag reel
Vice Principals boasts a novel concept, a great cast, an ease at sarcasm that more and more audiences are responding to, and a willingness to go dark not seen in a comedy in quite some time – reinforced by the final moments of the season finale. Though it’s often funny, the season is also peppered with sequences so uncomfortable and hate-fueled that you often would rather leave the room than see the action play out. It’s dark, it’s sad, it’s bleak, and at times it’s incredibly angry, but that is Vice Principals’ design. It’s definitely not for everyone, but for those that it is, you won’t be disappointed.
(Thanks to HBO for the images.)
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