Lukewarm Takes: Vice Principals
Welcome to the very first entry in Lukewarm Takes: TV Leftovers Edition, the column where I go back and watch the important television shows that have come and gone in the many, many years since I made my living partially as a television critic.
Tis true! Today I am an unemployable half-mad hermit howling into the wind but once upon a time I would watch the programs of the day the very moment of their release and take to the internet to perform the invaluable and unique service of rendering judgment upon what I had just seen.
“Louie’s done it again!” I’d rave. “He’ll never have any manner of grim reckoning and be shunned from all of show-business.”
Back when I wrote about television for The A.V Club I covered Eastbound & Down because I fucking loved it and informed readers whether an episode they’d probably just seen was mind-blowingly awesome, or merely kick-ass. The one exception, strangely enough, was one written by Harris Wittels that I found way too zany and grotesque.
Yet for whatever reason it took my wife and myself a couple of years to get to Vice Principals, star/co-creator Danny McBride and Jody Hill’s follow up to their iconic HBO cult classic about a weirdly lovable self-destructive superstar athlete and full-time asshole.
I guess I was put off by less than glowing initial reviews or maybe I just associated it too strongly with my old life as head writer for The A.V Club. Or maybe I’m just so goddamn weary and skeptical that I’m cautious about letting things into my life that might disappoint me, even if it’s just television shows I will probably like or love.
I am glad that I finally opened my heart and my soul to the dark magic of Vice Principals, which casts McBride as Jackson Gamby, a weirdly likable unlikable loser who hopes to redeem a lifetime of fuck-ups and bad decisions, many involving his ex-wife and awkward teenage daughter, by getting promoted to Principal after his school’s current Principal (Bill Murray) steps down to look after his dying wife.
Gabby has fierce competition for this ultimately rather unenviable position in the form of Lee Russell (Walton Goggins), a pansexual Machiavellian schemer and genteel Southern sociopath who will do anything and everything to achieve his goals, legal or illegal. Goggins is a huge cult figure due to his role in Justified, which I’ve never seen but holy fuck do I understand his following now.
Lee Russell at least feels like a character we’ve never seen on television before. His sexuality is fierce but coded and complex. He’s androgynous and angrily effete, leonine and panther-like in his feminine sexual energy and endlessly surprising. It’s also a very Southern sexuality, as Russell is a very Southern kind of gentleman, the kind who is genteel and put together and refined in ways that suggests manners, breeding and sophistication to some and homosexuality to others.
Vice Principals is rich in subtext that’s just barely subtext. It doesn’t take Freud to hypothesize that a good amount of Russell’s pain comes from not being able to scream his queer identity from the mountain tops instead of miscasting himself in the uncomfortable and unconvincing role of a happily married man and educator of youth. He’s a tragic Tennessee Williams heroine in a Larry the Cable Guy world.
Russell is also racist and sexist and many other terrible yet all too human qualities so he is incensed to discover that the role of the new Principal will be filled not by him or even Gamby but rather by an outsider, Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hébert Gregory), a large, assertive black woman in a culture that views all of those qualities in suspicion if not outright contempt.
Russell and Gamby are a study in opposites, an oafish man-child and a metrosexual with the pitch-black, catty soul of a really vicious fourteen year old girl. Where Gamby is hardcore oblivious normcore, duded out in fashions out a 1980s Sears catalog Russell is a creature of fashion. Vice Principals put more thought into the patterns and textures of the imposingly stylish shirts Russell wears than most shows do into their entirety.
They’re antithetical but equally extreme characters who form a furtive alliance to work together to bring down the new Principal by any means necessary so that one of them can take her place. It’s a deeply pragmatic bond of convenience between two men with ample reason to fear and distrust each other even before their lives become a no-holds-barred, winner-takes-all war for professional and personal supremacy.
As in Eastbound & Down, McBride is a goddamned force of nature but he’s matched, if not bested, by the volcanic force of Goggins’ malevolent magnetism. He’s the flamboyantly dressed demon hovering over the shoulder of a man who doesn’t exactly need help when it comes to making poor choices and doing the wrong thing.
Gamby and Russell’s campaign to rid the school, but more importantly themselves, of the rival standing in the way of them and their sad little dreams quickly takes on the pathological quality of an unholy obsession. In an early sign that there is something seriously wrong with Russell seemingly no amount of medication or therapy would ever be able to fix, things escalate things quickly when Russell and Gamby burn down Brown’s house.
Once you’ve passed that threshold, morally, or as a television show, there’s no going back. Vice Principals keeps topping itself, upping the intensity and the conflict until it’s reached Lynchian levels of bloody surrealism, most notably in a season one closer where a mystery figure in a bloody Indian head—the school’s mascot, in a particularly deft, appropriate touch—shoots Gamby for at least some of his myriad unpunished crimes, leaving him in a pool of his own blood. It could not happen to a more deserving figure, with the possible exception of Russell.
Russell and Gamby are unmistakably grotesques. But they’re grotesques with soul and a surprising amount of depth. Underneath they’re both profoundly broken and sad characters, and that pervasive, all-consuming loneliness renders them surprisingly sympathetic despite constantly and saying things that are damn near unforgivable.
Brown is a fascinatingly complex and multi-dimensional figure in her own right, fleeing a messy domestic situation and struggling to raise a pair of sullen, smartass sons while fighting off Russell and Gamby’s constant attacks. She has darkness and ugliness of her own. She’s a formidable antagonist, a tough, battle-scarred survivor with the misfortune to find herself facing the awful force of Russell and Gamby’s combined ambitions and resentments.
I loosened up and starting to enjoy and embrace Vice Principals more once I realized that it has no interest in realism or plausibility.
It seems safe to assume that if an educator did even a tiny fraction of the things that Russell and Gamby do here in real life they would be fired promptly, probably incarcerated for a very long time and rightly ostracized from society for their many shocking and unforgivable transgressions.
Thankfully, Vice Principals could give a mad ass fuck about verisimilitude. Vice Principals is a show of extremes about extreme characters, a roaringly, ragingly cinematic exercise in blackly comic Southern Gothic melodrama full of buried secrets, hidden shames and public humiliations.
No job would be worth the lengths Gamby and Russell resort to in order to get promoted, up to and including President of the United States and Galactic Emperor of the Universe, let alone the principalship in a shitty high school in the south. It doesn’t matter. Gamby and Russell both seem to labor under the delusion that being Principal will fill the vast, bottomless emptiness they feel inside, and that feeling for them is worth all the scheming and conniving in the world.
Vice Principals’ first season ends on a hypnotic cliffhanger, with Brown resigning after being blackmailed and humiliated by her Iago-like underlings and Gamby getting shot by the aformentioned mystery figure.
Honestly, the series could have ended on that cliffhanger and I would have been satisfied. The first ten episode hold together like a gutsy and ambitious neo-noir set in the likeliest and unlikeliest of all places: a high school, that most terrifying and soul-scarring of American institutions.
Thankfully the series did not end with Gamby’s shooting and Brown’s retirement. Instead, it continued for a second season chronicling the fall-out from Brown’s swift, embarrassing departure and Russell learning firsthand just how thankless and non-glamorous being the Principal of a high school where the teachers all hate you, along with the students.
Vice Principals richly justifies its second season with the depth of its supporting cast. Even after Brown leaves the picture beyond a few brief glimpses of her new, much happier life far the hell away from the insanity and ugliness of her last gig, the show still has a number of unforgettable supporting characters.
Russell and Gamby are so extreme and so immoral that it’s hard to identify with them even as it’s oddly easy to sympathize with their brokenness and their yearning. The two characters who come closest to serving as audience surrogates are Dayshawn (Sheaun McKinney) a cafeteria worker and friend of Gamby who takes in all the madness with just the right note of wry detachment and Amanda Snodgrass (Georgia King), an attractive and grounded new teacher who nevertheless finds herself stumbling into a sexual and romantic relationship with Gamby in spite of herself.
Amanda has a romantic rival in the form of Ms. Abbott (Edi Patterson), an unhinged Spanish teacher whose sexuality and fierce sexual hunger for Gamby borders on feral. An almost unhealthy level of commitment defines the performances here but no performance is more fearless, more extreme or more bleakly funny than Patterson’s portrayal of a woman so sad and desperate that she seizes on a human train wreck like Gamby as her first, last and only hope for redemption, despite knowing, deep down inside, that she will always be a woman hot enough to fuck in secret but infinitely too embarrassing to ever acknowledge as a girlfriend or partner publicly.
Russell’s home life is similarly drawn with tremendous care. Russell is a peacocking bully at school but at home his fragile masculinity is threatened by a mother in law who does nothing to hide her hatred and lack of respect for her son-in-law, and a beautiful doctor wife who makes substantially more than her husband.
Goggins lets us see the sad, scared little boy behind the overcompensating man. He’s a monster but he's also a loser who just keeps losing.
Vice Principals is, in its own weird, warped, wonderful way, an unlikely buddy comedy about two people who have more in common than they possibly could have imagined, or is at all healthy, most notably ambition unbound by anything even remotely considered ethics or morality.
I was skeptical, I suppose, of Vice Principals because I worried that it would be an archetypal follow-up: just like the original but not as fresh or good. I’m pleased to report that it’s actually more like Goodfellas and Casino. They’re just different and brilliant and essential in their own way.
Vice Principals gives us two unforgettable characters to laugh long and hard at, experience shivers of empathy for and be viscerally repulsed by, sometimes all at the same time. That’s no small feat. Vice Principals represents a hell of an accomplishment. I hope the future is kinder to it than the past and present have been.
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