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Vice Principals: “The Principal”

SEASON 1, EPISODE 1
WRITTEN BY DANNY McBRIDE & JODY HILL
DIRECTED BY JODY HILL

“There’s still some adults left here at North Jackson High.”

There are two sublime moments in the first episode of HBO’s new series Vice Principals. The first takes no more than ten seconds, and takes place in the first two minutes of the show. It’s an exchange between Danny McBride’s Neal Gamby and Walton Goggins’ Lee Russell, an exercise in swearing that carries as such a clip that it transcends how dumb the things the men are saying actually are. It’s also an easy distillation of the central conceit of the show: the two men are just as immature as the high schoolers they jockey to rule. Judging from the pilot, Vice Principals may be a worthy successor to Eastbound & Down, which was, for my money, one of HBO’s best. While the premise might initially feel like a retread, Jody Hill and Danny McBride have something fresh on their hands with the addition of Walton Goggins to the mix. Kimberly Hébert Gregory, as Dr. Belinda Brown, is the final part of the ultimately three-part act.

The pilot opens with a cameo from none other than Bill Murray as Principal Welles, who is resigning in order to take care of his ailing wife. As he raises the flag in front of the school one last time, he dresses down his two vice principals, telling them, “It’s all about the students. It’s not about you two.” Naturally, this isn’t a lesson that sinks in.

Russell and Gamby are, respectively, the school’s good cop and bad cop. Russell is a sycophant. Gamby is a strict disciplinarian (“rules are rules”), who we see dealing with a fight not by punishing the bullies responsible but, when their victim refuses to talk, doling out penalties for all of them, much to the consternation of the teacher on the scene, Ms. Snodgrass (Georgia King). It’s a distinction that Gamby comes to realize as he talks to one of the cafeteria staff, Dayshawn (Sheaun McKinney), who outright tells Gamby that he might not be well-liked enough to become principal. To wit, Gamby blows the rest of the conversation, and nearly blows up when he finds a meme of himself stuck to the break room fridge.

When he goes to confront Russell for the slight, he finds him talking with a member of the school board. In the ensuing tête-à-tête (the usual blustering, from both men), Russell asks, “Why is this job so important to you, Gamby? Is it because you’ve got absolutely dick-all else going on in your life?” He’s not wrong, of course — when Gamby goes home, we see only a very sparse array of furniture and unopened cardboard boxes waiting for him — but one gets the impression that the same applies to him as well.

For his part, Neal is divorced, on icy terms with his ex-wife Gale (Busy Philipps) and her new husband, Ray (Shea Whigham, terrifically earnest), but still hopelessly devoted to his daughter Janelle (Maya Love). Assuming that he’ll be given Welles’ old spot as principal, he arrives at her horse-riding practice to deliver the good news, though not before scaring off a group of boys who’ve gathered to talk to her after her run. His relationship with his daughter is the most humanizing aspect of his character; he craves the respect of his colleagues and his students, and the only thing that comes close to being as important to him is Janelle’s approval.

vice-principals

Riding on that high, he parks his car in the principal’s spot the next day, only to discover that he’s been passed over, and so has Russell. The new principal is a third party: Belinda Brown. The shock is enough to make Gamby throw up, though the first thing he does afterwards is move his car. Next, he tries to rally the teachers together to file a complaint with the school board, citing affirmative action in an attempt to undermine Brown’s accomplishments. Unsurprisingly, the teachers aren’t having it. Belinda is more than qualified for the job (the superintendent notes that she has been principal at several other high schools, and received her doctorate at Berkeley), and they know it. When Russell tells him to shut up, they get into yet another fight, if a scuffle comprised of punches thrown in empty air can be called as much.

When he returns home, he finds Ray and Janelle waiting to throw him a surprise party for his new appointment. Startled and frustrated, he explodes, and then breaks down, tearfully admitting to his daughter that he doesn’t really have any friends in the school system and has a tendency to drive people away. Janelle tells him that the other teachers don’t matter, and that the students like him. Almost instantly, we sees the cogs begin to turn in Gamby’s head. The students don’t love him, but they fear him, which — to him — is just as well. So, he enlists the help of the bullied student he’d sent to detention, offering him a blank slate in exchange for organizing a school-wide walk-out in protest of their new principal. (It’s also an opportunity for him to butter up to Ms. Snodgrass, letting her know that he’s released the kid from in-school suspension.)

The walk-out, like his attempt to incite the teachers, is a failure. Baffled (“You couldn’t talk any of your friends into leaving school? Kids fucking hate school!”), he walks out in the middle of a meeting with Belinda and Russell, and comes back to find that it’s become a meeting between just him and the principal. She’s seen the complaint he filed with the school board — with his name on it — and isn’t going to tolerate it. She tells him that she doesn’t mind being resented, but that if he doesn’t cooperate with her, she’ll destroy him. To prove her point, she puts him on morning driver’s ed duty, requiring him to come in two hours earlier than he usually would.

The next morning, things come full circle. Russell, while more than happy to play nice for the time being, wants Belinda as principal just as little as Gamby does, and following the doctrine of, “My enemy’s enemy is my friend,” they agree to combine forces.

This is where the second perfect moment kicks in, not in the truce between the two men, but in the Beach Boys cue (“Be True to Your School”) that ends the episode. The California stylings of the group are a step away from the midwestern/southern sensibilities that characterize Vice Principals, but there’s a longing in all of their music that is perfect for the unfulfilled ambitions of the adults we see acting like children. The school pride that the song suggests is, while outdated, also the perfect antithesis to just how selfish Gamby and Russell are. Belinda is obviously the best choice for the school, and their agreement to take her down inspires neither confidence nor sympathy, especially considering the politics of two under-qualified, immature white men undermining a more than capable black woman. In fact, it slots them nicely into a genre that has become a TV speciality, i.e. that of terrible people completely oblivious to how even the world in which they exist perceives them as monsters. The vice principals might be the main characters of the show, but they’re not the characters we ought to be rooting for.


Insult of the Week:

  • While not quite an insult in and of itself, Gamby’s sheepish muttering of, “Tacks!” as he throws (yes) tacks at Russell is a thing of beauty.

Grade: B

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Tintin enthusiast. NYC via the midwest.

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