‘Vice Principals’ Review: A Very Worthy Successor to ‘Eastbound and Down’
It’s kind of incredible that Danny McBride is capable of essentially playing variations on the same obnoxious, narcissistic and myopic character without audiences ever growing tired of his schtick. Unlike similarly repetitive character actors, McBride continues to both amaze and amuse with his crassly inappropriate and delightfully dumb humor, and Vice Principals is no exception. HBO’s latest miniseries is a more than worthy successor to Eastbound and Down, reuniting McBride with directors Jody Hill and David Gordon Green for another devious comedy — this time set in the world of high school administration.
It isn’t just McBride that makes Vice Principals so relentlessly, inappropriately hilarious. Joining him this time out is Walton Goggins, another character actor who often plays variations on the same essential persona. Goggins and McBride make for the perfect comedic pairing as two vice principals vying for the office of principal when their current superior (a fantastic cameo that should not be spoiled here) retires from their South Carolina school. As Goggins’ prissy, pretentious Lee Russell and McBride’s simple but woefully brash Neal Hamby go to war over the position, the school board opts for an outside hire — not just anyone, however: a woman. Kimberly Hebert Gregory’s Dr. Belinda Brown has a slippery charismatic surface, but underneath is a career woman no less ruthless than the two idiots determined to steal her job.
The real joy comes when Hamby and Russell forge a temporary alliance to tear her down. Russell’s strengths lie not only in his impeccably dandy wardrobe, but in his scheming; where Hamby is stubbornly direct to his own detriment, Russell kisses up to Dr. Brown in an effort to get closer to his enemy. Hamby’s fighting style is blunt and brash, while Russell is basically playing at the Art of War. The bickering banter between the two is sharp and ruthless, but when these two combine their moronic efforts Vice Principals really comes alive. The chemistry between Goggins and McBride is fantastic, whether they’e ripping at each other’s throats or tearing Dr. Brown’s life apart (literally and figuratively). The characters and writing are as streamlined as Russell’s colorful outfits, with not a vowel or consonant wasted in their rapid fire exchanges.
Like Eastbound and Down, Vice Principals boasts a simple concept with absurdist, obnoxious characters and crass humor that pushes boundaries without ever sliding over into meanness and unpleasantry. Each of the two half-hour episodes screened at SXSW were relentlessly energetic and delightful, promising even better things to come. As lively as its predecessor, Vice Principals is an engaging, rowdy follow-up that finds similar comedic value in another familiar location. And while a school setting has been exhaustively mined for film and television for decades, the creative talent behind Vice Principals manages — unsurprisingly — to find something new and unexpected lurking in the halls.
The first nine episodes were directed by Jody Hill, McBride’s creative partner on Eastbound and Down and The Foot Fist Way, and the duo have developed a style and tone that is so singular, speaking a specific comedic language that never fails to capitalize on the most absurd aspects of banal humanity. Frequent McBride and Hill collaborator David Gordon Green helmed the remaining nine episodes, which will presumably premiere in 2017, with the first season focusing on fall semester and the second on the spring semester.
Yes, there are — and will be — only two seasons of Vice Principals, but those narrative boundaries enhance the focus of the series and ensure that fans won’t be left wondering when or if another season arrives, or when the series will run out of steam. McBride’s ability to continually play variations on the same character remains impressive, but perhaps more impressive is his ongoing collaboration with Hill and Green, and their ability to take the most basic, familiar characters and transform their utterly human failings into brilliantly dark comedy.