The plot of “Vice Principals” is that two particular vice-principals in a suburban Southern high school would both like to be promoted to principal. But since there can only be one, they are enmeshed in bitter rivalry. Until, of course, their boss is replaced with an outsider. Faced with a common enemy, the buffoonish vice-principals decide to join forces in an attempt to discredit the new principal until one of them can take the job.
If you were to ask Neal Gamby (Danny McBride) and Lee Russell (Walton Goggins) if their sudden alliance had anything to do with the fact that their new boss is a black woman (Kimberly Hérbert Gregory), they would, in all likelihood, strenuously object. Not because Neal and Lee are so opposed to being racists, really — but instead because they just haven’t thought about their strident hatred for her that much. These are two pathetic men whose entire existence is driven by small changes in their perceived status. Before their kindly old boss (Bill Murray, in a cameo) left to care for his ailing wife, they pitted that same level of nameless, formless antipathy at each other.
But of course, it is significant that they found a way to join forces only when Principal Belinda Brown became their superior. And it is even more significant the lengths they are willing to go to in order to oust her. In the second episode, the two break into her house, smash her possessions, and eventually set her house on fire. Lee — Goggins, mixing his bitter smarm from “Justified” with some presumably comedic flamboyance — derisively refers to it as “Fat Albert’s clubhouse.” This is in an episode where nearly every person of color is presented as either a villain or an idiot.
“Vice Principals” is an unwelcome insight into the mind of small-minded assholes; a farcical love letter to insensitive pricks. In that way, it follows in the footsteps of “Eastbound & Down,” the last collaboration between McBride and executive producer Jody Hill. (The show’s run has already been planned out by HBO: The show will air 18 episodes over two seasons; nine in the fall, nine in the spring.) But while the show never quite endorses Neal and Lee’s actions, but it does think that you, the audience, will find their hijinks amusing.
This strikes me as the fundamental problem with “Vice Principals” — one that is more glaring than even the other major problem with the show, which is that it is rarely funny at all. It’s not that these assholes aren’t redeemable; it’s not that “Vice Principals” can’t find a way to make it a charming little story with an arc. It’s that in a world where there doesn’t seem to be enough empathy to go around, choosing to give these two men in particular so much consideration feels like wasteful confusion, like the most basic kind of carelessness. The focus makes an obvious implication about the intended audience of this comedy. This is a show pitched at the Neals and Lees of the world, not the Belinda Browns.
“Vice Principals” does care about its other characters, but its main thesis appears to be that it cares for the secret lives of the unfairly entitled first. Would it really surprise you to learn, for example, that one of our idiot heroes eventually “gets the girl”? Or that despite their many misdeeds, neither experiences any anxiety over losing their jobs? The show does manage to find some interesting ground when playing with Lee and Neal’s evolving relationship, Belinda’s tenacity, and the conventions of ‘80s high school films. But it never quite finds a tone that works for the loaded, upsetting material it’s tossing around. There’s a streak of angry malice running throughout “Vice Principals” that comes out in odd outbursts of slur-ridden insults or especially heinous examples of workplace manipulation. It feels often as if the show cannot contain the anger and resentment it is trying to tap into, and instead of doing the work of converting it into comedy, it has just unleashed unpleasantness into the ether. With the tension-filled summer we are having, however, more unpleasantness, especially around issues of race and class, does not feel especially necessary.