On the surface, “Vice Principals” comes across as the type of show where a couple of white dudes (creators Danny McBride and Jody Hill) collaborate together, consequentially shunning out diversity. But once you give it a chance, you realize it’s a show about a couple of white dudes (stars Danny McBride and Walton Goggins) collaborating together, consequentially shunning out diversity. Not a problem. Most seasoned comedies aren’t exactly known for that, e.g., “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Friends,” “Frasier,” etc., but it’s hard to get away with being shortsighted about such things when the laughs are sparse.
The series stars McBride, as Neal Gamby, a divorcee with aspirations of becoming principal like his father, who also has a predilection for mansplaining to his female co-workers and a caustic reaction to most things, and his now arch-nemesis Lee Russell (Goggins trying, yet again, his southern accent), as the sweet-talkin’ caboose-kisser with a manipulative air, playing competing vice principals at North Jackson High School.
The current Principal (played in a cameo by Bill Murray) is stepping down to spend time with his dying wife, which sparks a childish feud between the V.P.s who seem ready to cross any line of modesty and professionalism to get what they want. However, as they both lust after the principal’s leather chair, they run into an obstacle. The position has already been filled by Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory), a confident black woman with the pedigree and experience that earns her the right to hold herself high, but isn’t afraid to sink to Neal’s level to keep him in check.
“Vice Principals” is a McBride production through and through. The premiere opens with a school flag raising while Neal and Lee bicker acerbically, right hand on chest, while the other flips the bird. The pugnacious rivalry is much like what you see in the next scene with kids fighting in the hall. Neal and Lee, though, have traded fists for f-bombs. Their puerile antics are borderline inappropriate but somehow never cause for termination. It can be funny, at times.
McBride’s gift for acerbic insults is on full blast (most of them too inappropriate to quote), even his small bits of advice to students are pretty funny: “pants up, grades up.” But after a while, the vulgarity is taxing. McBride’s consistent vitriol is better digested in small doses as a side character (although I admit I haven’t seen “Eastbound and Down” and don’t know how he fared in his other pursuit as main character). Here, he comes across, once again, as two-dimensional, with a shallow agenda.
So it’s no wonder, then that the women read as characters with retrograde labels such as bitchy ex-wife and sexy English teacher. But McBride and Hill seem aware of all this, turning Neal and Lee into anti-heroes, with Lee playing the subtle, unassuming kind of villain that pairs well with Neal’s upfront conceit. Neal, though, seems like the only character with the likelihood for transformation, his love for his teenage daughter is his anchor to the emotional world that makes him seem remotely three-dimensional.
Meanwhile, Goggins’ talent seems wasted here with sometimes uninspiring comebacks and faux fights in teachers’ lounges. His comedy as a low-moral antagonist is better read in his collaborations with Tarantino. The character of Dr. Brown, though, is the most troubling. At once, she is strong, capable, even edgy, representing the type of unexpected casting and humor that would make one think this white-man show is more progressive than originally conceived, but she feels too much like a hegemonic construct, the type of catalyst for change that will eventually inspire Neal, or even Lee, whether they usurp her position or not, to realize how myopic their views are.
For now, “Vice Principals” is the type of easily digestible low-brow humor that will get viewers through a comedy-starved summer. It’s unlikely anyone will watch the 18-episode series for moral metamorphosis. And that’s fine, it has no obligation to be progressive, but you would think it has more of an obligation to be funnier.