“Second place” is just another way of saying “loser” at HBO, where a vice-president is a powerless figurehead and a vice-principal something even less. Fueled by defiant crassness and their protagonists’ furious entitlement, Veep and Vice Principals both land us in the midst of frustrated flails upward.
[Note: There are some mild spoilers from the first two episodes ahead.]
Vice Principals takes over Veep’s time slot when it premieres on Sunday, July 17, but of course the show it resembles most is McBride’s earlier starring vehicle Eastbound & Down, one of the best comedies of the past decade. Based on the first six episodes — there will be just 18 in all, split into two seasons — McBride’s new project lacks the wide streak of melancholy that gave Eastbound its secret weapon: existential depth. Compared to Kenny Powers’s four-season struggle to regain his MLB stardom, the stakes are much smaller in the slighter and less densely funny Vice Principals, where disciplinarian Neal Gamby (McBride) teams up with his fellow second-in-command Lee Russell (Walton Goggins) to oust the new head of the school, Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory). May the best thin-skinned dimwit win thereafter.
I’ll just say it: Vice Principals makes me miss Eastbound & Down, which was weirder and meaner and more unapologetically grotesque. Neal is Kenny with his curly mullet straightened and tamed, and he’s most interesting when he approaches the ex-pitcher’s angry excesses. In the second episode, Neal’s id and ego egg each other on as his barely contained frustration gives way to a full-blown tantrum inside Belinda’s house. Ripping apart his boss’s furniture and stabbing the walls with a chair after breaking in during school hours, he finally gives free rein to that aggrieved, juvenile part of him that can’t help telling his coworker, “Fuck your face! Fuck your butt!” Sporting a copstache and a large paunch, McBride is winkingly aware of the contrast between his middle-aged appearance and his character’s preteen insults.
Neal’s the biggest bully at school, telling one student, “You and your brother are the two dumbest, buck-toothed cousin-fuckers I’ve ever met.” There’s diminishing returns to these bursts of inappropriate behavior, as well as to Neal’s small steps toward romance with a bland blonde (Georgia King). Luckily, Goggins comes to save the day, his effete, conniving Lee making for the show’s best scenes. A bow-tied gentleman — seemingly the one Southern stereotype Goggins hasn’t yet played — Lee’s life is quickly revealed to be nowhere near as put together as his rumpled-dandy outfits suggest. And he might be the one person even more indignant and worn down than Neal. At Belinda’s house, the school tyrant demolishes everything that’s in front of him, but Lee is thoughtful about how to make the damage they cause irreparable.
Set near Charleston, Vice Principals thus suffers in the middle installments when they put Neal and Lee into separate story lines instead of having them figure out how to make their testy alliance work. It’s easier to appreciate during those slower half-hours how uniquely Southern this universe is. The actors are less polished-looking than their network counterparts — a dedication to verisimilitude that somehow makes the characters’ violent whimsies feel more grounded. Neal’s prized possession is a spanking bat in his office with the words “GET IT” carved into it, and despite Belinda's graduate degree from Berkeley, she doesn’t hesitate before asking Neal and Lee to pray with her at school. Neal exhibits exactly the kind of casual racism and sexism we’d expect from an authoritarian dinosaur like him, and there’s definitely an ugly undertone — probably intentional — to two pompous white dudes making it their mission to bring down a black woman who’s much more qualified for the job they think they should have.
Even when he wanted it most, I’m not sure that I ever rooted for Kenny to get his soul-destroying fame back on Eastbound & Down. Here, too, the tension doesn’t really lie in whether and how one of the two VPs will take over the school, but whether we want them to in the first place. They’d be even worse leaders than they are people, but their flop-sweaty need for power and status isn’t just for those things’ sake, but because their lives are in unnerving disarray. Motormouthed Neal spews slurs and boasts and commands and resentful compliments — many of them hilarious — in part because he can’t stop talking, but mostly because he can’t bear to listen to the thrum of daily failure that makes up the soundtrack to his life. If that means going off-curriculum by threatening the pot smokers at his school with “giant turkey tits hanging down to your knees” — you don’t wanna mess with your estrogen levels at such a formative age — he’s just looking out for his kids the best way he knows how.