July 18, 2016

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Premiere Review: “Vice Principals”


VICE PRINCIPALS:  Sunday 10:30PM on HBO – In the Queue

Your feelings about HBO’s new VICE PRINCIPALS are likely to be determined by your instinctive reaction to the name Danny McBride.  For a decade now, since the indie movie The Foot-Fist Way, McBride and his writing/producing/directing partner Jody Hill have been turning out variations of the same basic comedy, all of which feature McBride as an infantile, petulant middle-aged man whose torrential political incorrectness doesn’t mask his mass of insecurities.  McBride and Hill specialize in over the top, and for some their Eastbound & Down was a high point in recent American comedy, while for others of us it was hugely uneven, as often self-indulgent as brilliant.

In any case, Vice Principals is more of the same.  McBride’s character this time is named Neal Gamby, and he’s toned down from Eastbound‘s Kenny Powers–because what wouldn’t be?–but certainly a cousin.  Neal is one of the two Vice Principals of a middle-American high school, a general loser and futile disciplinarian whose ex-wife Gale (Busy Phillips) has moved up in the world by remarrying the easygoing, well-off Ray (Shea Whigham), and whose only dream is to ascend to the job of Principal.  He thinks he’s finally going to get his chance when the veteran in the job (a Bill Murray cameo) retires to take care of his cancer-stricken wife–but then the board appoints Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory), inflaming Neal’s ineffectual rage and leading to a raft of inept schemes against her.

The main difference in Vice Principals‘s take on the McBride/Hill formula is the addition of a counterpart for the McBride character:  Lee Russell (Walton Goggins), the other Vice Principal and Neal’s rival for the big job until Dr Brown comes along.  Lee is as much of an idiot as Neal, but Goggins plays him in a sharply contrasting effete style.  The idea seems to be that the two men will temporarily join forces against their common foe, but the opening episode (written by McBride and Hill and directed by Hill) is strongly tilted to Neal’s story, leaving it unclear how the show intends to balance the two going forward.  There was plenty of humor in Goggins’s Justified character, so there’s no question about his ability to handle comedy, although this kind of broadness will be a new color for Goggins.

As Vice Principals premieres on the night before the Republican National Convention begins, the most interesting thing about the story McBride and Hill have been telling all these years is the way their protagonists predicted, and now reflect, that party’s bombastic new nominee and his appeal.  (McBride and Hill aren’t ducking the broader implications of their theme, beginning the show with a close-up of an American flag and a recital of the Pledge of Allegiance.)  The fact that the show will pit two white men against an educated African-American woman may lead to plenty of dumb comedy, but it’s also in touch with resentments that are out there in the world right now.  What began as cult comedy is now uncomfortably close to the Republican platform.  Vice Principals doesn’t seem likely to have the kind of incisive humor as another high school political allegory, Alexander Payne’s great Election, but whether or not it turns out to be hilarious or even satisfying, the series may require some attention for its odd finger on the even odder current American pulse.  With Vice Principals, at least, we know how the story ends:  2 seasons comprising 18 finite episodes  Neal Gamby’s real-life equivalents may not leave so quickly.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."