Anyone who tells you Vice Principals is their favourite show is probably lying. They’re a contrarian, or they’re young, or they’ve been trapped in a cult for the last thirty years and this is the only TV show they’ve ever seen but, most likely, they’re lying. Because while Vice Principals is a great TV show, and it really is a great TV show, it’s not a show designed to be anyone’s favourite. I’d be surprised if it’s the creator’s partners favourite
Yet it is great! And in only 18 episodes split over two seasons. In this short run it creates a town, and a school, it has a murder mystery, the rise and fall of an empire, the growth and destruction of multiple characters ambitions and hopes and, in the process, it sees characters move from good to evil and sometimes back to good while others become eviller and others sink down into a quiet malevolent grey area. It is a comedy but also a show which at times makes you question whether you should watch on. Taking characters, you think you love, or at least like, into dark repugnant places while also submitting them to the same pain and heartbreak they caused to others and yet, all the while, still being funny and entertaining.
It’s nobody’s favourite show but it should be the benchmark for what television can aspire to, even in comedy, especially in comedy. Bespoke, twisted visions of chaos,
violence, heartbreak, triumph and revenge which can come from organic places, origins as seemingly petty as wanting to move from vice-principal to principal.
Unlike other short run shows which have attracted a cult following (such as Deadwood, Freaks and Geeks or Firefly) Vice Principals wasn’t cancelled but designed from the outset to be a flash in the pan. It was a show based on innately American subject matter but presented with the brevity and finite arc of most English comedy.
The shows main attraction and a good part of its restrained marketing campaign was that Vice Principals seemed to be either a follow-up or tangential to Danny McBride’s previous series Eastbound and Down. Similarly, to the Eastbound character of Kenny Powers McBride plays his character here, the vice-principal Neal Gamby, as loud, crude and wilfully ignorant. Gamby, like Powers, is a character trapped in a state of arrested development, a mix of juvenile reactivity and conservative defensiveness. Unlike in Eastbound McBride isn’t required to do all of the heavy lifting and is more restrained. He is the protagonist, sure, but also the straight man to Walter Goggins’ brilliantly maniacal co-vice president Lee Russell. McBride plays the perfect patsy to Goggins’ fey, manipulative, crazed yet poised, joker-like teaching bureaucrat.
Meanwhile the solid acting of the supporting cast provides a realistic grounding while
also often helping with the pivots and setups for some of the show’s best comedic moments. It’s, again, testament to how much this show achieves that it uses McBride in such a way that the tone can shift so easily and so often. Busy Phillips and Shea Whigham as McBride’s estranged wife and new partner could, themselves, be the basis for a whole show about family. In the very next scene Groundlings alumni Edi Patterson might be chewing the scenery as the simultaneously crazed lover of McBride’s Gamby and the conniving foil to Goggins’ Russel.
If this show had transposed the occupation of its character from Vice Principals to federal politicians, it would have probably won every single Emmy. It would have blown House of Cards out of the water and made them bury that crippled horse rather than try to keep it racing beyond the fall of it’s main character. It is the fact that Jody Hill and Danny McBride can mine so much from these base characters, these small stakes and local locations that makes what they produce so special.