TV Review: ‘Vice Principals’

TV Review: HBO's 'Vice Principals'
Courtesy of HBO

Danny McBride and Walton Goggins star in this tedious, unfunny attempt to empathize with two bigoted dudebros

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.

TV Review: 'Vice Principals'

Comedy, 9 episodes (6 reviewed): HBO, Sun. July 17, 10:30 p.m. 30 mins.


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


Danny McBride, Walton Goggins, Kimberly Hérbert Gregory, Georgia King, Sheaun McKinney, Shea Wiggam

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  1. rct11 says:

    The only thing tedious here is this review. Completely misses the mark and injects a tired and superficial commentary about social justice into the show. Russell and Gamby are two ‘bigoted dudebros’? I’m shocked that someone watched this show and that’s the conclusion they reached. Russell and Gamby are pretty complex characters with some very obvious flaws, but that doesn’t make them tedious. ‘Loaded, upsetting material’? How old are you? ‘Odd outbursts of slur-ridden insults’? Where? The only two I can even remotely think of are ‘fat Albert’s clubhouse’ and a couple of Jackie insults towards Lee’s wife and MIL. But those fit in with the characters and their flaws and aren’t gratuitous. The characters are called ‘bigots’ in the sub-title to this review and you failed to provide one concrete example of this.

    As someone who has read your reviews since the AVC, this is a pretty awful and weird one. You missed just about everything that this show was giving you and instead went on a few mostly irrelevant rants. The characters are called ‘bigots’ in the sub-title to this review and you failed to provide one concrete example of this.

  2. Gene says:

    I love how this show triggers feminists,bigots, and urbanites that hate men, white people, and anyone that doesn’t ascribe to leftist urban ideology.

    McBride, Goggins, and Gregory are all doing an excellent job of creating sympathy, scorn, and hilarity with their characters.

    Please continue to watch and whine about this show as it ignores your agenda in favor of creating unadulterated comedy as only McBride and Hill can.

  3. subye says:

    you whoever wrote this article needs a new job why do you always get it wrong….. This is the funnies crap I am addicted to and I know funny…. It’s hilarious, you don’t know comedy are what the people really enjoy. Now I am waiting probably because of you stupid review for episode 8 wtf… Get a new job.. You are a worthless critic who should be fired on the spot. I am missing this program because of you.

  4. Kris says:

    Who edited this? Rife with grammatical errors. It’s a shame what the field of journalism has become.

  5. CA Woods says:

    It’s rather troubling that the author of this negative review for “Vice Principals” would look so deeply into this comedy instead of accepting it for what it really is. It’s a simple comedy, yet has flashes of brilliance. Plus, its crass “I don’t give a fuck” nature is what helps make it even more funny. Anybody who feels as if this show shouldn’t be on television probably doesn’t understand comedy. The author of this review has prematurely and erroneously concluded what this series is all about. I would ask the author to retract her review because it unfairly depicts “Vice Principals” as something that is especially racist and misogynistic in nature. Rather, it is my contention that the reviewer does not fully understand the program. Yes, I am saying that the author of this review just “doesn’t get it.” While there may be perceived racism or sexism in this series, one shouldn’t be worried that it’s okay, as the characters involved either get justice or their comeuppance depending upon their actions…and besides, it’s a COMEDY! What the author also failed to notice is that there is a good sense of balance in “Vice Principals” when it comes to the characters. They aren’t one dimensional. Nobody quite gets out of hand, and we see parts of their personalities that actually make them rather endearing or just plain funny because of how stupid they act. And that’s why “Vice Principals” is a must-see event. It’s down to earth and funny as hell. It wasn’t made for pretentious assholes who think they know everything or think you shouldn’t watch it. Thank God!

  6. Mela says:

    Ms. Sonia Saraiya,
    I could not disagree with you more on your review.
    1) The actor Danny McBride’s style is generally just funny and buffoonery.
    2) Show is meant to be comedic. Not everything has to be serious. Not everybody wants to see Titanic turned into a show. Sometimes some people want something funny and could be stupid as their past time watching TV.
    3) Diversity of shows provides everyone something. After all we can’t all make whatever show we want to see on TV. So important there is enough array of shows for different people.
    4) What I see in this show I think you miss, this in a comedic way illustrates some of the problems of society and corporate America too. Just the same way you have some angry people believing in the slogan “Make America Great Again” America is great, but there are a vast number of people who believe in this. That’s one point of the show, but over the top to create more drama.

  7. Americo says:

    I think it pretty awesome. Satire, and peoples reaction to satire just gets me going…. I also like that it has to do with vice principles. Its so random. it just takes me away to laugh at dumb shit for 30 mins… I call it joy.

  8. James Kiley says:

    I feel sorry for anyone who doesn’t comprehend the inherent satire in black comedy. It’s supposed to be unfunny and with unlikeable characters, and it is hilariously so.

    Talk about missing the forest for the trees.

  9. Jordan says:

    Wow. Some people take television and life very seriously.

  10. harriet says:

    I don’t understand the hate for this show. I laughed a lot at the first episode. I’m looking forward for the rest. This is the first time I like Danny McBride (I never liked him in his previous works, sorry). Can’t we just look past the race and gender issues and see that people competing for a higher job position is quite funny from a third person point of view?

  11. SJ says:

    The Brink should have never been cancelled and Vice Principals should have never been made. Disappointed in you, HBO. 😞

  12. jahgreen says:

    True, this review has too much social commentary. But it’s absolutely right that the show isn’t funny at all except to those who believe that when somebody says “f***”” it’s a side-splitter. For those who think that approach is the height of comedy, I suppose this show is wonderful. I imagine 6th graders would love it. As far as I’m concerned, this style is just evidence that the writers lack creativity and imagination and have an extremely limited vocabulary. Pass.

  13. My initial hunch was correct. Tried to watch episode one and couldn’t take more than 10 minutes of it. It wasn’t the lack of political correctness — just lame writing.

  14. Latif idris says:

    It is a critics job to critique a show, and whether he/she enjoyed said show is up to their own prejudice. Yet this reviewer obviously put their own spin on this regardless if the show is actually funny.Rather than leaving her hang ups at the door,Ms. Soraiya decided to implement her own personal thoughts and views to the conversation. I’m confused, isn’t her job simply to tell the public whether Vice Principals is funny or not? There are are plenty of shows on television that enrage me being a young,black African,Muslim,and a libertarian male: Yet I can overlook it because I can differentiate between entertainment and problems that affect us as a society. She states that at this time shows like these are adding to the problem.What Ms. Soraiya needs to come to terms with is that her berating and knitpicking is a detriment and not a benefit to society.Vice Principals is a slapstick,immature,and a good comedy.Something this world needs right now, and we can live without the PC brigade passing judcement on us for liking fart jokes.Me liking the first episode doesn’t mean I am intolerant,immature, or racist;it just means I like to laugh. Nothing more or nothing less,sorry usually not a ranter but I just saw this show,liked it,and wanted to see some reviews. I didn’t expect to be judged for liking to laugh.

  15. Somebody’s been to P.C. class. I had little interest in this show, but now I want to see it.

  16. Clemph says:

    Seems like this is the wrong person to “critique” Danny McBride’s comedy.

  17. Jack says:

    Is this a professional review or blog? Can’t tell.

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