Last year, HBO debuted the first season of Vice Principals, which was the best unhinged, dialogue-driven character drama wrapped in a comedy you might ever see. The story was about two vice principals attempting to overthrow their boss to become co-principals. Along the way, stars Danny McBride and Walton Goggins played their characters with incredible tact and grace as we learned their manipulation and bullying are a facade to hide their insecurities. Their aim was the top spot so that they could be untouchable and therefore safe. In a twist, though, they discovered working together–and actually having a friend for once–was more fulfilling. That is until McBride was shot and the season ended with a major cliffhanger.
It took quite a lot of patience to wait for the second and final season to air this year, but thankfully it’s here, picking up about a month after the fateful shooting that left us all in suspense. Customary of the show at this point, McBride plays Neal Gamby in a way that’s at once endearing, but also slightly disturbing. You can’t look away even when he’s swearing in people’s faces or being ridiculously sexist. He just doesn’t know better. This episode opens with a fever dream of his shooting and soon we learn that he’s crippled (or at least he thinks he is). He’s being dramatic of course, all to get a little love and attention, which is what this show is about at its core. The characters might be vile and downright cruel at times, but it’s due to the pain and loneliness they have in their hearts.
This episode plays with the audience expectations well. Goggins’ character, Lee Russell, proves that he actually cares about Gamby by throwing him a ceremonial hero’s welcome with all the attention he probably always wanted from the school and its students. Sadly it’s the last thing he wants in the moment. This show is quite good at pushing the characters and the audience expectations one direction, then subverting them with real interesting character grown or revelations. This usually means a hilarious outburst or retort, but at the core of that humor is the pain you can relate to and understand. You might be laughing at Gamby and Goggins, but you’re also wishing these messed up people would get a grip and grow a little. They have and continue to do just that.
The highlight of this episode is Gamby’s growth after the shooting and how it has affected him deeply. His motivation and point of view on life in general has changed, and the character feels stronger because of it. He’s still seeking out attention for his injuries and insecurities, but he’s also got a new reason to get up in the morning: to find his shooter. It’s clear this season has become partly a who-done-it, which adds a different layer to the series but also allows it to reflect back on the last season. Gamby goes after one of the suspects in this episode and will likely go through many more because so many people hate him. That’s an element to this season that’ll be fun to watch.
Meanwhile, Russell is king of the castle, which is a new place for him. Last season he would grovel and do whatever it took to get in people’s good graces, which usually meant reducing himself to a pathetic wimp. Not so this season, as he’s now principal and doing whatever he wants. It’s fun to see in small details how he’s changed the school and allowed the power to get to his head. Once again, through his awful actions, viewers can see he’s just replacing his pain and loneliness with power.
I might be making it sound like the most serious show on TV, but it’s how these characters view the most mundane things as serious business that makes it so funny. They talk as if acquiring allegiances from teachers is life or death, or simply getting a coworker to like you is the only thing that matters. These characters push average thoughts and feelings beyond what is normal and that ends up being a consistently funny element of the show.
There’s also some new characters.
They also speak in hilarious ways. Gamby talks like a child impersonating an adult, and Russell strings together obscenities peppered with sexual innuendo. As a result, there are some really great lines. In one scene that brought me to tears, Russell compares his vocation to a gang bang (I won’t ruin it for you). It’s not only funny, it shows Russell opening up to Gamby. That’s something that could have been done after the relationship development in season one.
This is the kind of show that captures the dramatic high notes of Shakespeare–especially when Gamby talks–but in the setting of everyday office politics of a school administration. This first episode reminds us why Gamby and Russell are so fascinating to watch: they take the most minute and average things and blow them so out of proportion. Thankfully, their seriousness is so damn funny.