'Vice Principals' Star Refutes Racism Accusations: "This Is Actually What Equality Looks Like"

Courtesy of SXSW

HBO's freshman comedy Vice Principals faced some tough questions from critics Saturday at the Television Critics Association summer press tour.

The half-hour series centers on two rival vice principals (played by Danny McBride and Walton Goggins) who join forces when they are both passed over for the head job in favor of a newcomer to the school, Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Herbert Gregory). Only two episodes of the series have aired so far, and already there have been questions about racism because of the depiction of two white men fighting against an African-American woman in power.

"This is actually what equality looks like," Gregory told reporters. "I just feel really strongly that we have to look at what it is. It's about power, and its not about race, and it's not necessarily about gender. … I think if Melissa McCarthy played the role, they would do the same."

McBride, who also co-created and co-wrote the series with writing partner Jody Hill, said that from the beginning they were "well aware of what the optics of that look like."

Gregory stressed that she would not have signed on for the role if there was any merit to those accusations. "That's not the choice that I would make if it was about that. We have to be open. I want to be in a space where I can fight two white men," she said. "And I want us as an industry, I want us as people who are auditors of the work, to get past [it] and be open and really reach for that idea of equality … because these questions almost keep me from working most of the time."

Goggins also dismissed the criticism as superficial. "I see that criticism and I'm like, 'Wow, OK, you're just seeing something at first glance,'" he said. "It's really about so much more."

Critical remarks will likely have minimal impact on the storytelling simply because production has already wrapped on the series' 18-episode order. Hill said he preferred having already completed work on the series before it aired publicly. "In my experience — and I think I speak for Danny — whenever we've made stuff and we've had to test it … it hasn't been good, and it hasn't helped the product," Hill said.

Instead, Hill said they looked to friends in the industry for thoughts and opinions on the series. "There's not too many cooks in the kitchen," Hill said. "You're not trying to make everyone happy."

McBride and Hill originally thought of the idea as a film in 2006 but felt two hours wasn't enough time to properly dig into the characters and the story. Eventually, "as the landscape of television has changed," McBride and Hill begin to reimagine it as a TV show instead. HBO then picked it up straight-to-series back in 2014, ordering 18 episodes of the half-hour comedy.

Shortly before the series' July 17 premiere, McBride stated that additional episodes would not be produced. The series' short run is not surprising given that McBride and Hill's previous comedy series on HBO, Eastbound & Down, ran for just 29 episodes over four seasons.

"We always told them that," McBride said of his and Hill's conversations with HBO about the show's short run. "To us, having that rule and working this to a finale as opposed to trying to think of a backdoor escape — it just made us be a little more honest with the storytelling."

Vice Principals airs at 10:30 p.m. on HBO.