If you’re at all familiar with Jody Hill’s work, you know that his form of comedy tends to be a blend of expertly placed cursing and the darkest of dark comedy. Something like Observe And Report wallows in its dark humor so much that the laughs come as a release, a moment of reprieve before the next cringeworthy, cutting one-liner. Then there’s Eastbound And Down, where Hill teamed up with Danny McBride to make a chaotic, foul-mouthed ode to lost potential and existential anguish. Both of those works boast a brooding undercurrent that acts as a complement to the comedic levity.
Now, with Vice Principals, Hill and McBride have teamed up again. Eastbound And Down fans will notice some similarities right off the bat, from McBride’s blusterous character to the always-impeccable placement of a good “motherfucker.” Vice Principals, at least in the series premiere, is a little slighter though. There isn’t the same existential weight that elevated Eastbound And Down, making it more than just a crude comedy, but there’s also a benefit to the lower stakes. The relatively straightforward, low-key vibe of “The Principal” gives the show’s two strongest assets, Danny McBride and Walton Goggins, room to really lean in to their respective shticks.
Like so many series premieres, “The Principal” struggles to balance the need for storyline setup with the looser feel of the comedy. It’s not that the episode is heavy on exposition, but rather that it feels like the show still has much more to offer than what’s contained in “The Principal.” Still, the premiere does manage to show off just what this show will be. It’s there in the opening moments, as North Jackson High School’s Principal (Bill Murray) is ready to step down in order to take care of his wife. The battle between Neal Gamby (McBride) and Lee Russell (Goggins) begins right away. Russell can’t help but bring up who will fill the role of Principal, and Gamby, seeing this tactic as blatantly disrespectful, tells Russell to let the man “grieve for his dying wife.” This exchange immediately establishes the rapport between Goggins and McBride, who are clearly delighting in bouncing one-liners off one another. But the exchange also provides necessary insight into the characters. Russell is opportunistic, looking for a way to position himself as Principal, and Gamby, who believes he’s defending the Principal’s right to mourn, ends up just being crude and reminding him that his wife is dying.
From there the episode builds towards an inevitable confrontation between Russell and Gamby as the school board takes its time in announcing who will be the next principal. What’s interesting though is that the show actually subverts the narrative expectations. Rather than draw out the back-and-forth between Russell and Gamby, Vice Principals dives straight into chaos by having the board hire someone from outside the school as the principal instead. When Dr. Belinda Brown is presented to Russell and Gamby as the next principal, we’re given more insight into who these guys are. Gamby quietly wanders off, taking his anger out on his ex-wife (Busy Phillips) and her new man (a hilariously easygoing Shea Whigham). Then there’s Russell, doing everything he can to ingratiate himself to his new boss. While Gamby sees nothing but injustice, Russell sees opportunity, and there’s certainly potential in that dynamic.
Still, for as funny as the series premiere is—there are numerous hilarious moments tucked away in the episode, like the secretary saying “You know what, I think you want the hospital” to someone on the phone—it’s almost too neat and tidy. That could just be the show finding its footing, or needing to get the ball rolling with setup before diving into something more substantial, but what’s missing from this episode is the chaos of Eastbound And Down. The crudeness of that show worked not only because it complemented the show’s emotional insights, but also because it wasn’t afraid to turn everything up to eleven. There are certainly moments here when the show gets a little more unhinged. Dr. Brown gets her own badass monologue that puts Gamby in his place, and McBride and Goggins deliver tenfold during a break-room fight where each man tries to get the other to flinch. These scenes assure that there are plenty of laughs to go around, but there’s something almost too safe about the premiere. If Vice Principals is going to be more than just a run-of-the-mill comedy with HBO-sanctioned curse words peppered throughout, it needs to move forward with more reckless abandon.
After all, Goggins and McBride are clearly game. They’re each committed to these characters. They’re fully formed already, from Gamby’s insecurity manifesting itself in the form of insulting his ex-wife and her new boyfriend, to Russell’s vest and bowtie combo as a carefully crafted extension of his Southern charm. Russell and Gamby have potential to be nothing but caricatures, but in the hands of Goggins and McBride, there’s more depth and more mania.
Gamby and Russell eventually come together at the end of the episode, agreeing to work together to take Dr. Brown down, and the sense if that the show is just getting started. “The Principal” is a funny, promising premiere, but here’s hoping that the alliance formed at the episode’s end is a sign that Vice Principals is ready to let loose. Bring on the mayhem.
- It’s nice to see that Walton Goggins is doing exactly what we all thought he would in this role. His “aw shucks” routine that hides sinister motivations is going to be a delight to watch week after week.
- The episode comes close to embodying the chaos of Eastbound And Down when Gamby starts throwing things around Russell’s office. “Tacks” he quietly says as he dumps thumbtacks on Russell’s desk.
- The best scene in the episode though might be the assembly to honor the departing principal. It’s so wonderfully cringeworthy, from his dying wife gasping for air on the stage, to Russell closing his eyes and basking in the glory of the student’s rendition of “Wind Beneath My Wings.”
- Gamby’s apartment really screams recently divorced Vice Principal.
- “I’m sure we all that Mr. Wells left some large shoes to fill.” “So big.”
- “Pants up, grades up.”