When the first season of HBO’s Vice Principals premiered in 2016, it was met with divided reaction. From the creative team behind the network’s previous hit show Eastbound & Down—Danny McBride, Jody Hill, and David Gordon Green—the story featured a pair of the eponymous high school administrators, Neal Gamby (McBride) and Lee Russell (Walton Goggins) teaming up in a scheme to claim the principal job after being passed over for promotion in favor of Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory). While the show’s tone was something of a carryover from Eastbound, with a too-confident-for-his-own-good central performance by McBride being the obvious link, many critics found its pitch-black comedy too mean-spirited to enjoy. Writing for Vulture, Jen Chaney summed up the show’s context well: “At this very specific moment in America, do we really need to be laughing at two white dudes having so much fun trying to destroy a black woman?”
Point taken. And yet, there is something essential about the show’s depiction of its two central characters. The first season commands attention; in the second episode, Gamby and Russell break into and burn down Brown’s house. Any traditional sense of escalation in drama goes up in smoke; instead, the show roars out a warning almost from the jump: The rage of white men who feel they have been denied what is rightfully theirs is not to be underestimated.
The fall of 2017 brought the show’s second and planned final season, which concludes the story of North Jackson High School. After successfully plotting against Brown in the show’s first season—ruining her career, publicly humiliating her, and getting her bounced from the principal’s job—Gamby and Russell should have been riding high. However, in the closing moments of the show’s first-season finale, Gamby was gunned down in the parking lot by an anonymous, mask-wearing figure. Season two picks up in the immediate aftermath, as Gamby recovers and begins a hunt for his would-be assassin.
All of this sounds very dark as I recount it, and I suppose, on the page, it is. However, the show is ostensibly a comedy, but one so radical that its best laughs originate in the weighty seriousness with which its moments are staged. The first season’s musical score leaned heavily on the percussive sounds of a high school marching band’s drumline, but the second season’s sound seems more heavily indebted to the electronic pulse of Tangerine Dream, a genre choice that aligns more closely with Gamby’s dogged pursuit of his attacker. The show’s second season feels like a Michael Mann film, as Gamby purchases a cabin in the woods; rigs it with booby traps; and dresses the wall of a shed with surveillance photos, xeroxed personnel files, and string connecting his leads together. The show glosses on another quintessential text about white male rage, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), when Gamby fashions his secret weapon—a small pistol guided by a track hidden up his sleeve.
When Gamby returns to North Jackson after his injury, he finds a whole new world. He has awoken from his coma, and everything is different. Lee Russell serves as principal, and he has made some changes; the old mascot, the Warrior, has been retired in favor of a Tiger; bright orange tones dominate the school’s hallways, draped banners, and faculty spirit wear. A new vice principal, Nash (Dale Dickey), is in charge of discipline, Gamby’s area of expertise. Russell’s office is a shrine to himself, the centerpiece of which is a classically rendered painting of the ponderous Lee sitting on a stone, a tiger nearby. There is a new sheriff in town, one totally invested in his own greatness.
Russell loves the camera, addressing the school each morning from the student-run television studio. He is everywhere, a constant reminder to faculty and students alike that the new principal is watching.
And he has reason to watch. He lives in fear of criticism, consumed by paranoia that the teachers despise him. He becomes apoplectic when he discovers a crude drawing of himself, his penis rendered tiny, and executes a purge of unfriendly teachers in response. He gathers them in the woods near the school, confiscates their identification cards, and burns them. The message is clear: say the wrong thing, do something Lee doesn’t like, work against his regime, and you are not welcome. He is an authoritarian maniac; another group of teachers is adorned with gold stars, hung around their necks as reminders of how they’ve crossed Lee.
For much of the season, Gamby aids and abets Russell as his own hunt for the truth about his shooting continues. Through all of this, the overriding tone is one of high tragedy. Episodes crescendo in moments of utter failure and despair, as each man is ripped apart by the decisions he has made. A mid-season effort ends with Russell on the floor of his house, abandoned by his wife Christine (Susan Park), weeping and wondering where he went wrong.
The perverse sense of comedy within the world of Vice Principals invites laughter at such profound darkness. These moments of loss are funny because Russell and Gamby are so completely and utterly without self-awareness. That Russell can sit on the floor amidst the wreckage of his life, after all that he has done to destroy everything around him—all his lies, all his self-aggrandizement and narcissism—and still think he is the victim, is astounding in its brazenness. As the synthesizer-drenched music swells, and the camera pulls back in a symmetrically framed shot with Lee’s overwhelming sense of isolation dominating the frame, the show asks its audience to step outside the emotion of the moment and laugh at how desperately inside his own head Russell will always remain.
This is where Vice Principals may be a bridge too far for some viewers. I get it. Its central characters, with whom we are—at least theoretically—supposed to sympathize are abominable. They do horrendous things. The entire reason the show exists at all, the foundation of its conflict, is predicated on white male resentment at women, at racial minorities, at immigrants, at everyone who isn’t them.
It is an uncomfortable place to visit, but this is where the show becomes essential. It demands that you not only buy the ticket and take the ride, but that you take up residence inside its characters discomfiting psyches as well. Gamby envisions himself a crusader seeking justice for the wrongs done unto him, and the show’s stylistic choices reinforce his fantasy. In Russell’s mind, he is a tragic figure who ascended to power through whatever means necessary; the love and respect he craves still elude him. These two men are living out high drama, with all its generic conventions following suit. It is in these moments of swirling pathos that Vice Principals is at its funniest. In essence, the show’s quest is to immerse its audience deep inside the heads of white men losing their grip on power in order to offer laughter as a response. These are petty men whose desperate behavior is best taken for what it really is: pathetic.
The series’ climactic episodes escalate the stakes, as Gamby’s pursuit of his shooter leads him to Russell. In the penultimate chapter, they confront one another in a knock-down, drag-out fistfight through the school, bashing each other to hamburger. Gamby is laid low by a hurled trash can, and he returns the favor by catapulting Lee through a plate-glass window. The episode underlines the point when the two men fight over a fire extinguisher and set it off, its coolant covering both of them in a layer of whiteness that emphasizes their resentment and ultimately, their security. After the battle, they suffer no serious consequences.
In the finale, Lee proves himself innocent of Gamby’s shooting, and the real perpetrator is revealed: It was teacher Jen Abbott (Edi Patterson), a sociopathic former lover of Gamby’s. As the school’s graduation ceremony gets underway, Gamby and the injured Lee must race to stop Abbott from jealously murdering another teacher, Amanda Snodgrass (Georgia King), Gamby’s true love. Abbott is subdued, but at a dangerous cost—she is trapped inside the cage of a real live tiger, rented by Lee as a stunt for graduation. The tiger escapes, and the wild orange predator immediately turns on its boorish trainer, brutally killing him in the cafeteria. The teachers and administrators are confronted with the power of what they have unleashed, a furious orange demon who will not, cannot be stopped. Its appetite for destruction will go unsatisfied.
The series has been building to a moment where Gamby and Lee, whose resentments and rage have propelled the narrative, come face-to-face with the animal incarnation of the real thing. All the anger, all the insecurity, all the victimhood, coalesces into the image of the tiger, bloody guts hanging from its teeth, chomping down on Lee’s hand as he attempts to calm it. It is Lee’s belief in his own ability to master the natural world that bites back. As Lee lies bleeding on the school’s floor, he confesses to Gamby: “I know what we did was wrong, but I liked it. And it was fun.” The two men profess their love for one another in this moment of doubt and pain; they have learned nothing. Gamby conquers the tiger by roaring at it—his rage is so powerful, he dominates the animal into submission.
At the conclusion of the narrative, each man is rewarded for his behavior. Gamby is the principal of a nearby middle school, his dreams realized. Russell, his mauled hand having been replaced by a gloved prosthetic, is the regional manager of a clothing store at the shopping mall, where he decides when women get to take their smoke breaks. These are men who have gone on a wild, unfettered rampage of destruction; orchestrated a systematic character assassination campaign against a powerful, qualified woman; perpetrated an assault on civic institutions; made a mockery of public service; maintained a tangled mess of escalating lies; and turned their domain into an authoritarian funhouse where the price of admission is blind loyalty and criticism is punished swiftly and severely.
Vice Principals is over now. I guess I’ll see what else is on TV.