The story of two ill-tempered, immature and immoral rivals who set aside their differences in order to oust the far more competent professor who has taken their dream promotion, HBO’s latest original series, Vice Principals, certainly can’t be described as your average high school-set sitcom. Packed full of expletives, sexist remarks and a fair amount of casual racism, the comedy has only been on the air a matter of weeks and yet has already inspired an inordinate amount of think-pieces as to whether its politically-incorrect tone has any kind of place in the 2016 TV schedules.
From the cast members’ response to the furor to less controversial subject matter such as its clever '80s-inspired soundtrack, Hollywood legend’s cameo, and unusual back-to-back filming process, here’s a look at 15 things you need to know about one of the most talked-about new TV shows of the year so far.
Anyone pining for another season of the now departed Eastbound and Down could do worse than check out Vice Principals. Not only does the comedy share its star, the irrepressible Danny McBride, but it also boasts the same behind-the-scenes talent in the shape of director, writer, producer and co-creator Jody Hill.
Of course, this isn’t the only time that regular cohorts McBride and Hill have worked together outside the adventures of self-absorbed middle-school P.E. teacher Kenny Powers. They also teamed up on The Foot Fist Way, the 2006 black comedy in which McBride played a Taekwondo instructor in a small Southern town and Hill his intense best friend, while McBride also played a ‘caucasian crackhead’ in Hill’s second big-screen directorial effort, Observe and Report. David Gordon Green, who worked with McBride on Eastbound and Down, Pineapple Express, and the much-maligned Your Highness, also serves as executive producer.
Those who have enjoyed the first few episodes of Vice Principals needn’t worry about their new favorite show being canceled. In an unusual move, the cast and crew have already filmed a second season which is expected to air sometime next year. However, fans may be disappointed to learn that there are no plans to make a third.
Of course, the likes of Wayward Pines and Under the Dome have proved that networks are willing to stretch what should have been a one-season show way beyond its breaking point if ratings surpass expectations. But although Vice Principals can’t exactly be considered a ratings flop – its viewership consolidated around the 0.9m mark after shedding a worrying 350,000 viewers from its first episode of 1.15m – it can’t exactly be considered a ratings titan either. It therefore looks likely that Vice Principals will almost definitely be a two-season wonder.
Fans should also be thankful that Vice Principals has made it onto screens at all. McBride and Hill first came up with the premise about an increasingly dirty power struggle for a principal’s job over ten years ago. But they initially planned to film it as a movie, something which McBride now admits would have been the wrong medium, telling The New York Observer: “It didn’t work as a movie because there was just so much about these characters that we wanted to tell. When we extended it, that’s when it really came alive.”
Far from being frustrated about the show’s long gestation period, McBride also added that it turned out to be a blessing in disguise: “We didn’t plan on it taking all this time, but it might not have worked as a series years ago because people didn’t invest in TV the way that they do now.”
Danny McBride obviously believes in the old adage about sticking to what you know best. The comedian is renowned for playing loud and proud obnoxious jerks, most notably in the likes of Pineapple Express, This is the End, Your Highness and 30 Minutes or Less, as well as in his previous work with Jody Hill. And so it’s little surprise to discover that McBride’s character in Vice Principals is also a loud and proud obnoxious jerk.
To be fair, his Neal Gamby is a tiny bit less blusterous and delusional than his most famous character, Kenny Powers. Indeed, forced to cope with his divorce, job rejection and the fact he’s a subject of ridicule in an overwhelmingly bland apartment, there are the occasional moments when you almost feel the odd twang of sympathy for the character. But that soon dissipates when he takes his anger out on his wife’s poor unsuspecting new beau or dismisses the reasonable actions of a colleague on the basis of her gender. Basically, your enjoyment of Vice Principals will depend almost entirely on how much you get out of McBride’s now well-worn formula.
We’re sure that Walton Goggins is charm personified in real life, but on screen, he's built a reputation for playing some of the nastiest guys on the block. There’s been bad cop Shane Vendrell on The Shield, the truly wicked white supremacist Boyd Crowder on Justified. and sadistic slave fighting trainer Billy Crash in Django Unchained, not to mention villainous roles in American Ultra and Predators, just to name a few.
It’s little surprise, therefore, to discover that Goggins, who actually auditioned for Jason Sudeikis’ role on Eastbound and Down, isn’t exactly someone you want to really root for on Vice Principals. Indeed, he might not be a crooked police officer or evil career criminal, but Goggins himself claims that Lee Russell, the racist vice principal who proves to be far more conniving and dangerous than his arch rival, is one of the meanest characters he’s ever played.
The show has perhaps deservedly picked up some criticism for the fact it sometimes appears to be asking audiences to sympathize with two bigoted middle-aged white men trying to bring down their female African-American superior. However, the actress at the center of the furore, Kimberly Hebert Gregory, claims that detractors are actually missing the point when it comes to the issue of relations.
Speaking at the Television Critics Association, Gregory, who plays Dr. Belinda Brown in the comedy, said: “We have to be clear and not be reductive after the first two episodes of watching. Because a black female body is in a space with these white males… we kind of reduce it to something that isn’t necessarily in that script.” Gregory, who argued that the story would be exactly the same had someone like Melissa McCarthy taken her role, added: “I want to be in a space where I can fight two white men. This is actually what equality looks like.”
Unsurprisingly, co-creator McBride has also been quick to shoot down any arguments that the show is inherently racist, sexist or both. The actor has repeatedly pointed towards the fact that Gregory’s character is by far the show’s most well-adjusted individual, and that both his and Goggins’ troubling double act is motivated entirely by fear and intimidation, rather than any positive traits.
Talking at the same TCA panel, McBride also argues that Vice Principals is ultimately about a completely different issue altogether: “Ultimately, I don’t see this as a story about race. I don’t even see it as a story about sexism. It’s a story about power and about how people think power can fix things that are dysfunctional in their own lives. That’s what these guys are dealing with. Both of these guys have lives that, in their own regards, are failed. They’re not happy—they’ve put value into a position at a school that they think will somehow miraculously fix things. And when they’re denied that, they feel like it’s the person who [got the job] who kept them from being happy.”
For an original comedy series intended to be little more than a relatively innocuous way to spend 30 minutes, Vice Principals sure has sparked some weighty debate. Alongside all the aforementioned social issues, several respected sites have noticed that the story of an obnoxious, pig-headed, overtly racist white guy attempting to claw his way to power has parallels with a certain billionaire businessman’s presidential campaign.
However, McBride, who claims he’s one of the least political people in Hollywood, told Rolling Stone that he certainly had no intention of satirizing Donald Trump, but that he can see why some have made the connection: “These characters are trying to behave in the way they think they're supposed to, but the seat at the table for guys like them is disappearing. How that relates to Trump, maybe, is that it's always surprising and shocking when people speak their minds in a way that's insensitive to how other people think — sometimes it can be so shocking it's funny.”
Bill Murray is no stranger to making the odd cameo. His surprise appearance in 2009 comedy horror Zombieland caught everybody off guard to hilarious effect, while he recently joined the likes of Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver and Ernie Hudson on the list of stars from the original 1984 film to show up in Ghostbusters. He's added Vice Principals to his resume in 2016 by guest starring in the first episode as the principal whose retirement sets the story’s wheels in motion.
McBride, who had worked with the acting legend on Rock the Kasbah and Aloha, later revealed on that he was made to jump through hoops in order to persuade Murray to sign on. “We were trying to figure out who was going to be Principal Welles, and I was like, ‘Maybe we can try Bill and see if he’d be up for it.’ So I sent him an email. Didn’t know really if he’d respond to it or not, asking him if he’d be interested in checking out the script. He kind of responded — ‘Please deliver me a hard copy at the RiverDogs baseball game tonight.’” McBride dutifully obliged and the rest is history.
Able to laugh at the antics of Neal and Lee on the presumption that such abhorrent characters wouldn’t really exist at a real-life school? Think again. For a piece with MTV News, two actual principals, Susan Lozada and Peter Bugnee, sat down to discuss just how closely the show reflected reality. And although they both agreed, thankfully, that the act of cursing at kids and burning down houses was unheard of, they acknowledged that they were familiar with the show’s competitive spirit.
When asked whether he had ever encountered someone like Neal Gamby, Bugnee said: “Competitive and trying to get the job? Absolutely. Especially when you have three or four assistant principals, it can get kind of cutthroat with people keeping tabs on who’s getting played. You try to be nice about it, but there’s not always much you can do with that kind of tension.” Bugbee also went on to recall one incident 20 years ago when a particularly vicious potential principal placed razor blades under the door handle of a rival job applicant.
Although McBride and Goggins, and to a lesser extent Gregory, dominate the proceedings, they’re also supported by a stellar cast featuring some of American TV’s most underrated actors and actresses. Having often stolen the show as Jules’ younger BFF Laurie in Cougar Town, Busy Philipps threatens to do the same as Neal’s tough-as-nails ex-wife Gale. Following roles in gritty fare such as Boardwalk Empire, True Detective and Justified, Shea Whigham grabs the chance to show off his comic timing as Gale’s overwhelmingly polite husband Ray. And Georgia King gets the chance to put the disappointment of the short-lived The New Normal behind her as the idealistic English teacher Amanda Snodgrass.
Elsewhere, there are roles for Edi Patterson (Blackish), Susan Park (Fresh Off the Boat), Ashley Spillers (Maron), Christopher Thornton (Rules of Engagament) and Dale Dickey (True Blood), as well as a first ever part for Maya G. Love as Neal’s permanently embarrassed daughter Janelle.
Apart from a handful of small roles in the likes of Burn Notice, Graceland and Common Law, Sheaun McKinney had struggled to get his acting career off the ground and was thinking about quitting the profession altogether after moving back home to Miami. However, during a brief return to Los Angeles in which he attended church with a friend, he was told by the guest speaker: “God is going to send an Earthquake to get rid of all your obstacles, but you have to act, and it’s time for you to move.”
After experiencing the shock of an earthquake at his manager’s apartment that very same night, McKinney understandably took it as a sign from God, and decided to stay in LA a little while longer to give his dream one more shot. Just two months later, he landed the role of cafeteria worker Dayshawn in Vice Principals.
Composer Joseph Stephens has previously worked with Hill on Eastbound and Down and Observe and Report, but it’s his epic score for Vice Principals that has attracted the most attention. Although the HBO show is set firmly in the here and now, Stephens looked towards the '80s music of John Carpenter and Tangerine Dream to produce a retro soundtrack recorded on a bunch of vintage analog synthesizers.
In an interview with GQ, Stephens reveals that instead of opting for the upbeat sounds that grace most sitcoms, he wanted to score Vice Principals as more of a drama, which explains why you’ll hear plenty of intense military drumming and ominous synths throughout the series. Stephens, who incredibly composed most of the music before a single shot of the show had been filmed, cites the dramatic accompaniment to the slow-motion shot of Neal getting hit by a piece of meatloaf in the cafeteria as his favorite piece.
Hollywood appears to think that the spectacle of manchildren tripping their heads off on illicit substances is a guaranteed method of getting everyone rolling on the floor laughing their asses off, when in reality it’s a lazy trope which even the most easily-pleased stoners are getting bored of. However, for all of its faults, Vice Principals can lay claim to producing one of those rare drug trip sequences which does actually raise some laughs.
High on LSD after a plot to spike the football team inevitably backfires, Neal and Lee experience numerous hilarious, if extremely warped, visions at the end of the fourth episode (Run for the Money) -- including a goat monster and a mutating Ms. Snodgrass -- before using their finger guns to ‘kill off’ their local rivals’ high school team. It might not be big or clever, but for once, this was an acid trip sequence which was undeniably funny.
For those who have been deterred by the characters’ loathsome behavior, McBride has hinted that Neal will undergo at least some semblance of progression and possibly even redemption over the course of its two short seasons. Speaking to Entertainment Weekly, the actor argued that viewers shouldn’t judge the show from its opening few episodes: “I think people will be surprised at the culmination of this show and the culmination of the relationship between these two men and what profoundly it has to say about the dysfunctionality of people in general.”
It's difficult to envision McBride giving the show a straight-forward happy ending, which, of course, has already been filmed, but he predicts that whatever happens, audiences should respond well: “All of a sudden you’re going to be sitting in a chair either alone or around a lot of people going, like, ‘How did I get here? What is happening right now?’ It’s really special, man, what these guys have built. It’s very cool.”
Are you tuning in to Vice Principals? Where do you think it ranks with the other HBO original series? Let us know in the comments.
Vice Principals continues next Sunday with "Circles" @10:30pm on HBO.