'Vice Principals': SXSW Review

Courtesy of SXSW
Mean and funny, but where will it go from here?

Danny McBride and Walton Goggins play rival administrators who team up to destroy their school's new principal in HBO's upcoming series, which premiered at SXSW.

Less a high-school comedy than a chronicle of workplace warfare whose backdrop just happens to be educational, Vice Principals features two mortal enemies, played by Danny McBride and Walton Goggins, who must join forces against a common foe. More conventional than series creators McBride and Jody Hill's previous series Eastbound & Down (at least judging from the two episodes shown here), this return to HBO offers plenty of nasty laughs but not much for viewers to sink their teeth into. The network has bought two nine-episode seasons, the first of which is slated to start airing in July. 

Reining his persona in slightly from the arrogance with which he entered Eastbound, McBride plays Neal Gamby, a divorced hardass who vents his personal disappointments on the students and teachers at a southern high school. His fellow vice principal is Goggins's Lee Russell, an effete dandy who seemingly does little but suck up to the faculty. When their school's beloved principal (Bill Murray, classing up the joint) is forced to retire to care for his dying wife, his long-feuding underlings both expect to get his job. Instead, it goes to an outside recruit, Kimberly Hebert Gregory's Belinda Brown — the kind of educator who likes reminding people it's "Doctor Brown," not "Ms."

The first episode gets us to this point, ending as the enemies realize they must team up if they want to run this star administrator out of town and get back to clawing each other's eyes out in pursuit of her job. A similar if less dramatic reversal awaits in episode two, but before that happens, the action goes to such an extreme, sending the veeps on a wanton tear of vandalism, one wonders where it can credibly go from here. The long scene plays well, but might have been more cathartic after a couple more episodes full of the kind of demeaning tasks Dr. Brown has started heaping on Gamby — coming in two hours earlier each day to teach driver's ed, buying breakfast for teachers who think the treat comes straight from the principal. The show doesn't watch as Gamby slowly cracks; it begins with him at the breaking point and asks how much worse things can get.

Eastbound & Down quickly peeked behind its protagonist's obnoxiousness, making his misbehavior far more interesting. It's hard to guess whether Vice Principals has similar things in store. Its most successful friction point between the humiliation Gamby feels and the meanness he spews lies in his interactions with his ex-wife's new husband Ray (Shea Whigham), a seemingly decent guy unruffled by the broken-family bitterness around him.

Goggins clearly enjoys stepping away from menacing roles and being comic relief for a while, mincing through scenes in his bowties and stage-whispering evil plans to McBride when nobody else is around. A visit to his home in episode two suggests his character has a much stranger backstory than we first assume. Here's hoping Gamby has similar unplumbed depths.


Studio: HBO

Cast: Danny McBride, Walton Goggins, Kimberly Hebert Gregory, Georgia King, Busy Philipps, Shea Whigham, Sheaun McKinney

Executive producers: Jody Hill, Danny McBride, David Gordon Green, Stephanie Laing, Jonathan Watson