For all of its bluster, dick jokes, and curse words, Vice Principals does have a sense of humanity. It’s hard to find it every now and then, but all the barbs and insults lead to scars. They’re being formed every single episode, as characters like Gamby, Russell, Brown, and Snodgrass try their best to deal with past relationships, an uncertain future, and general everyday malaise. The first season of Vice Principals has been wildly inconsistent to be sure, but when it’s actually finding that perfect balance between chaotic, over-the-top comedy and relatable character struggle, it’s worked nearly as good as some of the best comedies on TV. There’s especially promise in the final two episodes of the season, which manages to move away from the listless qualities that defined the start of the season and instead establish something much more substantial and, more importantly, compelling and unique.
Last week’s episode, “Gin,” strikes the comedy/drama balance perfectly. It’s an episode that’s all about how we deal with being overwhelmed in our homes and our jobs while constantly wondering whether we’re one of the good guys. What’s intriguing about “Gin” is the way it establishes the mindset of the main characters, allowing us peeks into how they deal with their own shifting perspectives and sense of who they are. Take Lee Russell. He’s a man who sees himself as a manipulative powerhouse, as a man who deserves nothing but praise and high-ranking job titles, even if the stakes are pretty low in the grand scheme of things. Thus, when Russell doesn’t get what he perceives he deserves, he breaks down and lashes out. He yells at his wife and her mother, and accuses Gamby of not being a good friend, crying in the woods before Gamby heads out to meet Snodgrass for a date.
You see, where Russell isn’t able to cope with a shift in control away from himself, Gamby is relishing in his distance from the fight against Brown. Even before Brown offers him his own solo position as “Chief Accountability Officer,” Gamby has found contentment in his new relationship with Ms. Snodgrass. “I can’t believe we just fucked on a bus” is not just a punchline stemming from a superb cut, but an indicator that Gamby can’t believe his luck. There’s a kind of humanity in Vice Principals’ assertion that its characters can find happiness in simple pleasures, in leaving the past behind, like Brown and her Tanqueray tattoo, and that shines through for most of “Gin.”
Now, let’s not get all weepy over here, because “Gin” is also hilarious. Not only does Walton Goggins deliver a standout performance as an over-worked, eternally-frustrated kiss ass, but Kimberly Herbert Gregory hits a plethora of somber and uproarious notes as Belinda Brown sees her life start to unravel. After her husband takes the kids back to Philadelphia, she turns back to Tanqueray to soothe her troubles. The following intoxication scene is a blistering comedic performance. Gregory vacillates between manic, moody, obnoxious, and guilt-ridden in the span of only a few minutes. That’s the humanity creeping through, even if the climax is Brown getting a plunger shoved in her face so that Gamby and Russell can subdue her in her drunken rage.
That sense of empathy extends to the season finale as well. “End Of The Line” boasts a very similar structure to “Gin.” It revels in feel-good moments before pulling the rug out from under the audience, but in doing so it allows for not only a legitimately compelling (and terrifying, if we’re being honest) cliffhanger, but also a moment where the power once again shifts in this constant struggle between Brown, Gamby, and Russell. That’s what you want from a show heading into its second, and final season.
In “End Of The Line,” Gamby and Russell finally reach their goal. They blackmail Brown with the video of her rowdy, drunken behavior, and she has no choice but to resign before Russell can blast the video throughout social media. As always with Vice Principals, the moment of cruelty is a complex one. On the one hand, I think we’re supposed to empathize with Brown and her struggle to just be good at her job and be left to it. She’s a victim of circumstance, of unchecked male egos. At the same time, the scene plays as a sympathetic one for Gamby. We’re supposed to understand that he feels guilty about ruining Brown’s career, and quite frankly, sacrificing Brown’s depth in favor of an emotional moment for Gamby doesn’t quite hit the right notes.
Thankfully, that all changes once “End Of The Line” reaches its conclusion. Before getting to that though, it really is important to note just how much Vice Principals changed over the course of its first season. These final two episodes feel like the show finally becoming itself, finally establishing a unique voice and tone. There’s nothing inherently terrible about the first half of this season, but those episode are admittedly listless. They’re bland, mostly forgettable half-hours, whereas “Gin” and “End Of The Line” feel urgent and alive. Adding in the more empathetic elements of the show, like Gamby and Ray finally finding some common ground, or Brown trying to convey her struggles within this school system, and suddenly Vice Principals feels fully formed.
Still, early on in this season, I, along with many others, were calling for Vice Principals to throw a little more chaos into the mix. As the season’s gone on, the show has proven that it can balance its surreal, whacked-out elements with its more dramatic tendencies. Now, we have the climax to “End Of The Line,” one of the more beguiling and legitimately surprising final scenes I’ve seen in a long time. It doesn’t matter that it happens at the end of a half-hour comedy on HBO, or that it fits in pretty well with Jody Hill and Danny McBride’s modus operandi; it’s still an insane, delightful surprise.
It’s insane and delightful because it doesn’t hold back, a fact amplified by all the tidy resolutions that come before it. After witnessing Gamby and Russell receive their positions as Co-Principals, followed by Gamby and Snodgrass making up, there’s a genuine shock to seeing Gamby get shot by some demented masked person in the parking lot. It’s a surreal scene, and the tone is spot-on: it’s both hilarious in its absurdity and totally frightening in execution. Vice Principals really couldn’t end its first season on a better note, showing that while it has the capacity for a ton of empathy, it’s also prepared to make a mess of everything. Bring on the crazy in season two.
- One of the great pleasures of Vice Principals’ first season has been watching Kimberly Hebert Gregory become if not the star of the show, then the comedic equal of McBride and Goggins. For a sometimes flimsy show, the three leads are all doing tremendous work.
- Also: Shea Whigham. He adds so much depth to such a small role.
- “That shit got me turnt up! Put me in Beast Mode!” I won’t lie, I really want a night out with Belinda Brown.
- “So I’m really going to have to do the pen blackmail thing by myself?”
- “I’m sitting here conversing with my friend and subordinate.”
- “It’s supposed to be clever because we’re going to be on train tracks.”
- “I must address my gin-soaked evening.” We’ve all been there, from what we can remember.
- “It’s such good news that I overlooked Ray’s idiocy.” Gamby’s treatment of Ray may be his most unforgivable quality, and I’m not even ignoring the arson.
- That’s a wrap on an inconsistent but promising first season, folks. School’s out. Enjoy the break and come back fresh next year when we find out who’s behind the seriously creepy mask.