In HBO’s ‘Vice Principals,’ losers get no love
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There's something deeply amusing about the way some of the characters in HBO's new "Vice Principals" deploy their Southern accents. Workers at a South Carolina high school, they singsong their sentences, even when they're bursting with ill intent. Vice principal Lee Russell, played by Walton Goggins, is particularly agile at masking his aggression with a silky smooth lilt, as if he's an old-school gentleman instead of a destructive scoundrel who's not above spitting in his mother-in-law's tea as revenge.
I could watch Goggins go over the top as Lee for hours, as he seethes with envy and scorn behind his happy pink pants and bowties. An actor better known for his dramatic work on "The Shield" and "Justified," Goggins is unabashed as a sadistic guy who desperately needs to be loved. I could also watch Danny McBride ham it up as his polar opposite on "Vice Principals," the utterly charmless vice principal Neal Gamby. McBride gives us a pathetic divorced father who is gruff, tone-deaf, and relentlessly serious. Like McBride's Kenny Powers in "Eastbound & Down," Neal has macho roots, but he is a by-the-rules guy who wears his school sweater vests and ugly ties with pride.
"Vice Principals," which was created by McBride and his "Eastbound & Down" partner Jody Hill, is about how these men who despise each other join forces. When the two insecure losers conspire, things get twisted indeed. They both want the job of principal of North Jackson High School, after the current principal — Bill Murray in a cameo — steps down. But the position goes to an outside candidate, Dr. Belinda Brown, played with humorous moral ambiguity by Kimberly Hebert Gregory. So they try to bring her down, with Lee egging Neal into some very bad behavior that includes, at one point, arson.
"Vice Principals," which premieres on Sunday at 10:30 p.m., is not one of HBO's sophisticated comedies, by which I mean that it's not a knowing satire like "Veep" or a subcultural ensemble riff like "Silicon Valley." It's a more obvious comedy about ignorance, insensitivity, ambition, and delusion, like "Eastbound & Down," and it's enjoyable if you don't expect too much from it, also like "Eastbound & Down." Watching "Vice Principals," I thought of movies starring Will Ferrell (who was an executive producer on "Eastbound") and Melissa McCarthy that are low- to middle-brow and conventional, but well done. They're not merely excuses for a series of raunchy, tossed-off gags; they have enough plot and character to entertain without taxing the brain.
The show spends two episodes establishing the atmosphere at the school and the fierce rivalry between Lee and Neal, and in episode three it begins to deepen their story. Neal is a runt, but he's also a wounded bird who manages to evoke sympathy thanks to McBride's commitment to the role. His ex-wife, Gale, played by Busy Philipps, shames him at every turn, and at a certain point you feel for him. Deep within his dull eyes, hiding behind his Neanderthal facial expressions, you can see a broken man who's hoping to find love.
Starring Danny McBride, Walton Goggins, Georgia King, Busy Philipps, Maya G. Love, Kimberly Hebert Gregory. On HBO, Sunday at 10:30 p.m.