(Photo Credit: HBO/Fred Norris)

Last week’s episode of Vice Principals did a lot to assure audiences of the viability of Jody Hill’s latest dark, low-key concept comedy. “A Trusty Steed” was biting, funny, and chaotic. After a funny but rather sluggish and tidy premiere, the second episode of the season felt more like the show finding itself, settling into its groove of whiny adult men freaking out over not getting what they want. Momentum was created in “A Trusty Steed,” and yet it’s all almost for naught, as “The Field Trip” sees the show trending backwards.

“The Field Trip” starts off well enough, with Gamby and Russell up early in the morning, waiting for Dr. Brown to arrive at school. They’re waiting to raise the American flag; or rather, they’re using the raising of the flag as an excuse to stand outside and revel in the disheveled and hurried appearance of Dr. Brown arriving at the school, a result of their destructive handiwork in last week’s episode. This right here, the sheer mean-spirited but also surprisingly vulnerable actions of Russell and Gamby, is the show’s draw. Vice Principals has Goggins and McBride willing to take their characters in every single hilarious, dark direction, and the show should be leaning into that strength like it did with “A Trusty Steed.” So what does Vice Principals do with its third episode? It focuses on a field trip and separates Gamby and Russell.

Separating Gamby and Russell isn’t an inherently misguided idea. After all, Gamby is the more fleshed-out of the two characters so far. His marital status and standing within his peer group gives him a depth of character that Russell, in all his Southern Dandy glory, doesn’t quite have. The problem is that Vice Principals still feels like it’s just getting going, that it’s just discovering what McBride and Goggins are capable of, and splitting them up for a week, with Russell only in the episode for a single scene after the cold open, is detrimental to the momentum the previous episode created. The chaos takes a backseat this week, and that leads to diminishing returns.

A big reason why “The Field Trip” doesn’t quite hit the mark is the fact that it’s perhaps too early in the season to do an episode that’s basically a character study. This episode is all about how Gamby is forced to confront that he actively rubs people the wrong way, and that his presence is never really welcomed by his colleagues. There’s certainly humor in that idea—Russell’s disbelief at the idea of Gamby going on a field trip, where he’ll probably wear shorts, is one of the episode’s highlights—but the emotional beats the episode attempts never really hit. It’s as if the show is trying to locate the sadsack comedy sweet spot that Bojack Horseman hits so often, but with so little insight into Gamby thus far, it’s hard for the more emotional moments to truly have an impact.

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For instance, much of the episode is centered on the relationship between Gamby, his colleagues, and more specifically, Ms. Amanda Snodgrass. Gamby’s crush on Snodgrass reaches insane levels of creepy here. Not only does he request one of Russell’s in-depth, and likely every illegal, files on her, but he makes the whole trip about getting close to her. The problem isn’t in Gamby’s romantic pursuit of Snodgrass, but in the show’s inability to make the pursuit into something meaningful or enlightening. If “The Field Trip” is going to separate Gamby from his war with Russell and Brown, then it needs to have a good reason to do so. Creating conflict between Gamby and another teacher—the young, hip “cool teacher” Mr. Hayden—isn’t enough.

The thing is, we already know what kind of man Gamby is. He’s insecure, reeling from his separation from his wife, pissed about his daughter’s newfound love of motocross, and generally upset that he has no control over his life whatsoever. He’s spent years following the rules in the hopes of a payoff in the form of becoming Principal—a modest goal, but one that means a lot for a man like Gamby—and now he’s realizing he’s been passed over. Not only is Brown the Principal, Mr. Hayden is the coolest teacher around, and Russell is actually liked by his peers. “The Field Trip” only works to underline these qualities, which feels redundant at this point.

Essentially, “The Field Trip” feels listless. There are certainly funny moments, like Gamby putting his hand comfortingly on the shoulder of a black student when he says “slavery is wrong,” or Edi Patterson’s entire performance as the needy, wacky Ms. Abbott, but they’re not enough to distract from the fact that the show’s greatest strength, the pairing of Goggins and McBride, is absent. In theory it’s good for a show like Vice Principals to try and expand its emotional scope. Settling for only dark comedy won’t work; it never works without some sort of humanist heart beating at the center of all the darkness and nihilism. But “The Field Trip” doesn’t have the emotional weight yet to support a full episode of Gamby introspection.

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Stray observations

  • A small but hilariously creepy visual gag: included in Russell’s file on Ms. Snodgrass is a shredded memo from the Bank Of America.
  • Comedy gold: Edi Patterson chowing down in a giant turkey leg.
  • “Lock your doors, asshole.”
  • McBride’s nonchalant delivery of “so, what’s up with you?” with meatloaf all over his face is delightful.
  • Ms. Abbot is having none of Gamby’s shaming her for drinking a mudslide: “It’s my cheat day!”
  • So, did the inclusion of naked teenagers (at least in terms of the story) having sex make anyone else uncomfortable? I’m sure that’s the goal, but it was still pretty cringeworthy, right?

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