TV Review: ‘Vice Principals’ Is Off To A Good Start

Danny McBride is not exactly the most versatile comedic actor out there. He does one thing—brutally alienating social aggression—and he does it well. In his darkly compelling turn as the preternaturally self-destructive ex-MLBer Kenny Powers in “Eastbound & Down,” McBride took the self-sabotaging narcissism of characters like Larry David, Alan Partridge, and David Brent and stripped away even the thinnest veneer of sociability, leaving behind a raw, throbbing id of masculine self-loathing.

The problem for McBride is that, given his relatively narrow range, it’s difficult to resist comparing his performances back to Kenny Powers. In “Vice Principals”—co-created by McBride and Jody Hill, who also created “Eastbound”—McBride delivers a similar level of socially alienating neurosis as the striving, awkward Neal Gamby, but Gamby’s job, as the vice principal of a South Carolina high school, hems him in, often forcing him to repress his baser instincts in a way Kenny Powers rarely had to.

Of course, this being a McBride-Hill joint, there’s still plenty of profanity, hostility, and violence. “Vice Principals” pairs McBride with Walton Goggins, who plays Gamby’s rival Lee Russell as an unctuous southern-gentleman type, whose ingratiating smile disguises his Machiavellian designs. After the long-time principal of the high school (Bill Murray, in a cameo appearance) retires, Gamby and Russell angle for his job. When an outsider, Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory), is appointed to the position, Gamby and Russell form a reluctant alliance to depose her. “Vice Principals” is then less a high school show per se than a comedy of power struggles set against the backdrop of a school.

The show derives a lot of mileage out of the clash between McBride and Goggins, but its greatest asset is its incredibly deep bench of performers, including Gregory as the principal whose calm professionalism masks her ruthlessness, Georgia King as the sweet-natured object of Gamby’s affections, Shea Whigham as the incredibly supportive new husband of Gamby’s ex-wife, Sheaun McKinney as Gamby’s cafeteria confidant, and Edi Patterson as a slutty teacher. “Vice Principals” is at its best when it leans heavily on its cast, allowing McBride and Goggins to bounce off of these very different performers.

Watching Goggins and McBride bounce off each other (which is in many ways the heart of the show) is also fun, but in these scenes, as in “Eastbound,” McBride and Hill tend to over-rely on sweary animosity and outrageous situations to get their laughs. This stuff can be quite funny, as when McBride heatedly tells another character, “Go fuck yourself off,” but it can get pretty wearying. The viciousness also escalates too quickly. In only the second episode, Gamby and Russell burn down Dr. Brown’s house, which doesn’t exactly leave a lot of room to build. At its best, “Vice Principals” investigates the line between the repressed emotional space of the workplace and the ruthlessness and power-seeking of its characters, but too often it simply falls back on chaos and profanity for its comedy.

If the show can be a bit uneven, one element that does elevate “Vice Principals” over a number of other comedies is that it has a defined aesthetic. Hill, who directs all but one of the series’ first six episodes (McBride directs the other), has always had a good eye. Compared to some of his comedic contemporaries like Judd Apatow, Paul Feig, and Adam McKay, he knows how to use the camera to enhance a joke, with judicious use of slo-mo being a particular trademark. The show’s repressed aesthetic is enhanced by Joseph Stephens’ unusual score—which alternates between Carpenterian synths and pounding drumlines—to provide a brooding and tense undercurrent to the bland suburbia of the show’s setting.

Based on the first six episodes of the series, it’s not clear “Vice Principals” will ever completely escape the shadow of “Eastbound & Down,” but it’s off to a promising start. Hopefully, the show can manage to escalate the power struggles without tipping over into pure outrageousness and expand out to really give its incredibly funny cast a chance to shine, even if that means occasionally taking the spotlight away from McBride.

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