When Vice Principals premiered last year on HBO, critics were a tad underwhelmed. Most pointed out that for a series positioned as a comedy, it wasn’t altogether funny. But as the second and final season comes to a close this Sunday, I have to wonder if we were ever meant to laugh — and whether we’ve misread a uniquely American tragedy.
It’s not an either-or distinction, as students of Kafka and Beckett will tell you, and the collaborations between Jody Hill and Danny McBride have always straddled the line: Their indie cult hit The Foot Fist Way and previous HBO series Eastbound & Down both operated in a Southern-Fried Gothic mode, landing vicious jokes within even more cutting critiques of toxic masculinity. Together with Observe and Report, a Hill film starring Seth Rogen as a bipolar mall cop, they make up a repertoire of nearly nihilist character studies that touch the dark heart of our post-prosperity nation. As with Observe and Report’s notorious date-rape scene, the viewer’s queasy discomfort is crucial, proof that this grotesquerie is more familiar than we’d admit.
We cringe, wince and suck our teeth.
Not everyone wants this effect from their entertainment, but the Hill/McBride dynamic, for those who can stomach it, has turned out bracing reads on male delusion and aggression as well as the monstrosities of celebrity and wealth. If it works as comedy, it’s because McBride is thrillingly adept at playing men with a childish idea of what it means to be a success, and somehow makes you feel sorry for him right after he’s acted like the biggest asshole on the planet. Underneath the gauche bravado of has-been pitcher Kenny Powers in Eastbound and the machismo of martial arts obsessive Fred Simmons in Foot Fist Way are guys who yearn to feel in command, and that subtext finally emerges as subject in Vice Principals, the duo’s most political opus.
The front half of the series finds high school vice principals Neil Gamby (McBride) and Lee Russell (Walton Goggins) putting aside their personal differences to sabotage the unexpected tenure of Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Herbert Gregory), a black woman who has just been hired as principal — a position both had coveted. In no time they resort to criminal tactics with deeply troubling overtones. One early episode had them trash and burn down their boss’s home to the ground, an act fairly described as “racial terrorism” by detractors who wondered how anyone could see the humor in it. Yet the scene is instructive, setting up the twin energies that drive the plot without worrying about whether they’re problematic: Whereas Gamby, the simple-minded disciplinarian with an eye to status, thinks only to smash Dr. Brown’s possessions, it’s the Machiavellian, sociopathic Russell who decides to set her curtains ablaze — despite Gamby’s protests. But by then it’s too late, and their pact is sealed with a terrible secret.
The plot of American fascism in the 21st century follows an eerily parallel course, with a democratically installed black leader inspiring a dissociative break among reactionary whites. Obama and Dr. Brown were viewed as “usurpers” who must be dethroned — or at least humiliated at any cost — despite their clear competence and overall positive effect on the polity that their scheming opponents claim to love most — America, or in the case of Vice Principals, North Jackson High School. And just as Trumpism wedded white resentment to millionaire grift, the erasure of Dr. Brown’s impact on the school is secured by a combination of Gamby’s wounded pride and Russell’s arcane style of manipulation.
Once she’s gone, the men agree to share power, though no sooner do they reach an accord than Gamby is gunned down in the faculty parking lot by a shooter dressed as the school’s pointedly offensive Native American warrior mascot. It’s a shocking cliffhanger that presaged a White House in which no one can be said to have an ally.
Gamby’s assailant is probably Russell, of course, though he’s spent much of the second season avoiding that obvious truth — sort of the same way Trump’s working-class base refuse to acknowledge how he’s betrayed them. Before he could get there, he had to confront his complicity in the rise of Russell’s regime, which ticks all the boxes of autocratic madness: Staff purges, brutal re-education, narcissistic spending and a total overhaul of the school-as-brand, remade in his image as home of the politically correct Tigers.
It’s fascinating to watch Gamby chart Russell’s descent into isolated paranoia and recognize the fragility that brought them together in the first place, and in so doing, begin to free himself of it. Had Gamby attained the principal job, he’d have become his own sort of thuggish dictator; instead, he forges genuine connections with the oppressed teachers and neglected students that would befit a naturally effective administrator.
The question of whether Gamby can be redeemed applies equally to the Americans who put their fellow citizens (and themselves) in mortal peril by casting their lot with corrupt extremists. How do we atone for helping hatred and violence prevail? That’s a question far outside the scope of your average sitcom, and a measure of just how little Vice Principals cares about the genre. It’s a showcase for McBride’s and Goggins’s vulgar riffage the way the Trojan Horse was a parting gift from the Greeks — a subterfuge by which it smuggles in scathing commentary on race, class and the collapse of democracy.
That stuff won’t necessarily tickle your funnybone — nor can we expect it to in the bleak wasteland of 2017 — but the show never framed its feud as petty, escapist fare about bumbling jerks. For Russell and Gamby, the stakes are quite literally life-or-death, and we’re forced to reckon with them as they do, meanwhile wondering how the band of radioactive jackals in the West Wing are conspiring to kill us all.
The perfect, recurring theme to tie everything together: From the opening moments of the pilot, Gamby and Russell have squabbled over the ritual of the flag-raising at the start of each school day. Irrelevant in the larger scheme, neither will relinquish the duty, considering it the privilege of the principal alone.
Fascism takes many forms, but there’s no variant more American than that which demands the Star-Spangled Banner for its own, as a symbol of control, not unity.
The surprising weight of Vice Principals lies in grace notes like these, which bring one back to those long-off mornings in homeroom, blearily reciting the pledge of allegiance, figuring out just where your loyalties will lead.