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Vice Principals: “Circles”

SEASON 1, EPISODE 5
WRITTEN BY DANNY MCBRIDE, JOHN CARCIERI & HAYES DAVENPORT
DIRECTED BY JODY HILL

“Keep moving, the school is on fire — slow children burn, smart kids learn.”

As I maybe should have expected considering how much she dominated last week’s episode, Principal Brown is barely present this week. “Circles” focuses entirely on the relationship between Neal and Lee, and while it’s a delight insomuch as it’s a full-blown version of the Gob Bluth-Tony Wonder storyline on Arrested Development, it highlights the primary weakness of Vice Principals thus far: while each half-hour has connective threads to the others, the constantly shifting focus makes the episodes feel almost disparate.

The episode introduces us to Lee’s roided-out neighbor, Jackie (Owen Harn), who’s been keeping the Russell clan up late as he works out in his garage with the stereo turned up as loud as it can go. His request for Jackie to keep things down is summarily tossed out (Jackie waves Lee off in a stereotypical Asian accent when he sees his wife and mother-in-law, and then yells, “Welcome to hell!”) in an introduction that pretty clearly places him as a character even more odious than either of the vice principals. The next night, Lee takes action by calling the cops.

Meanwhile back at school, Brown insists that Gamby adjust his aggressive disciplinary attitude, telling him that he’s no longer allowed to suspend or expel students, and creating a space called “The Circle Room,” complete with beanbag chairs and popcorn machine, for the students to talk things out. Tensions lead to what can only be called a break-up at Lee and Neal’s usual rendezvous in the woods, as they hurl insults and grievances at each other until declaring their partnership over and Lee storms off. Still, as soon as he’s out of sight, Gamby tries to reach him via walkie talkie, telling him to come back so they can talk it out.

A miniature version of the episode plays out in Neal’s first session in the Circle Room, where two boys have been called in after getting into a scuffle involving a pair of brass knuckles. As it turns out, the fight had broken out because of sore feelings, as a girl had dumped one of them for the other. As if on cue, the next morning, Lee and his new friend, Martin, the fine arts teacher (James Connor), come across Gamby as he’s on morning traffic duty and as they’re on their way to get haircuts. They snap at each other in an extended sequence that only ends when Martin asks, understandably bewildered, what’s going on.

Neighborly tensions escalate, too, as Jackie follows Christine and her mother into the grocery store, confronting them in one of the aisles to warn them not to call the cops again. He hits the trifecta of rude (physically threatening Christine), racist (telling Christine’s mother to speak English, and “none of that bing-ba bullshit”), and misogynist (“You should try smiling more, it’d make your face look a lot better”), leading Christine to tell Lee to go over and apologize later that night. The following encounter is just as unpleasant, as Russell tries to make peace and Jackie complains about the smell of “that dink cuisine” and calls Christine a mail order bride. When Russell tries to step to him, Jackie decks him in the face.

Things get worse for him as his friendship-of-convenience with Martin degenerates. Gamby might be on board for how cold-blooded he can be, but Martin has the natural reaction of finding him a bit extreme. As they walk around the school track (and if for nothing else, please watch this episode to get a gander at Russell’s fitness gear), Russell drops the c-word on Martin as an expression of frustration, which Martin is having none of.

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Both Belinda and Dayshawn notice Gamby’s sour attitude, and over lunch, as Gamby watches Martin and Russell eat together (and if anyone knows where Russell’s bento box came from, please comment, because it is nice), Dayshawn drops a question that feels inevitable, but that I also didn’t think the show would address: he asks if Gamby and Russell are a couple. He cites the fact that they go off into the woods together all the time, which Gamby denies despite how many times Dayshawn’s seen them. (“No wonder you sad, man, you just heartbroken! […] Hang in there, Mr. Gamby.”)

His emotions come out in his next session in the Circle Room, where’s he meant to be disciplining a group of girls caught cheating on a math test. After he throws a tantrum, hurling popcorn everywhere, they talk him through his current situation, telling him that he ought to go talk to his “business associate,” and that he’ll never know if it’ll work or not unless he tries.

Said business associate is busy stuffing every can of La Croix he has into a pillowcase, then crossing the street and using it to smash Jackie’s stereo to bits. It’s a bold move that doesn’t quite pay off, as Jackie proceeds to beat the crap out of Russell, right up until Gamby appears in the driveway, leading to the best exchange of the episode:

Jackie: Who the fuck are you? His boyfriend?
Neal: No, his regular friend. And if you keep kicking him, then you and I are gonna have to talk it out.
Jackie: What are you gonna talk to me about, motherfucker?
Neal: My feelings.

And he knocks Jackie out with a single punch, aided, as it turns out, by the brass knuckles he’d confiscated at the beginning of the episode. As Gamby helps Lee up, they apologize to each other for their behavior, agreeing to re-up their partnership. It’s a scene that’s played with the utmost tenderness, both of them dropping their macho facades right up until Christine and her mother show up on the scene. Russell’s swagger is instantly turned back on as he takes credit for knocking Jackie out. Gamby lets him have it, calling out, “Good job, Russell,” as Lee sashays back across the street. The music that plays across the credits is perfect, as usual: Neil Sedaka’s “Let’s Go Steady Again.”

Aside from the lack of Belinda Brown, I have one major complaint with tonight’s episode, and that complaint is Jackie. It’s not that he’s horrible, which he is, but that he only seems to exist due to the show’s insistence that we sympathize with Gamby and Russell. Jackie is rude, racist, and misogynist, but they’re arguably all traits that are true of Neal and Lee as well. The difference is that he’s more obvious about it, and he’s not a main character. Last week, I might have said that Lee and Gamby would get their comeuppance in the same manner that Jackie does, but this week, I’m not so sure that’ll be the case. But for now, we’ll just have to hang on and see. Vice Principals has defied my expectations enough times for me to be willing to give it a shot.

Insult of the Week: “Put your eyebrows down, and calm down.”

GRADE: B

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Tintin enthusiast. NYC via the midwest.

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