HBO’s Vice Principals ends its run with a violent episode that feels crazy but given the show’s history, is ultimately too tame to satisfy.
When HBO’s Vice Principals first premiered, the series felt distinctly apart from everything else on the network and much of television as a whole for that matter. Hailing from Jody Hill and Danny McBride, the creators of Eastbound and Down and The Foot Fist Way, the new series promised the same cringe-worthy humor about mostly dysfunctional man-children played by McBride and Walton Goggins, as they flailed in anger and lashed out at others because they didn’t get what they felt life owed them. Considering the sort of extreme behavior conducted by McBride’s Neal Gamby and Goggins’ Lee Russell, the show was a difficult watch in 2016 and given the state of things in 2017, sitting through their shenanigans was exponentially harder.
When the first season ended with a surprisingly violent assault on Gamby that left his survival in question, it altered the tenor of the series and reshaped the course of the final nine episodes, giving them a newfound sense of purpose as Gamby attempted to identify his mysterious attacker and readjust to the altered power structure at the high school, now that Russell ascended to the role of principal. The changes slowed things down, to a certain degree, but they also gave the series a definitive goal to reach that sometimes made the second season feel as though it was unnecessarily treading water. The shift from a depiction of two petulant white males attempting to seize power by whatever means necessary to an ostensible (near) murder mystery (though don’t tell that to Gamby) never quite came to life in the same way season 1 did. Part of that was because the season had so many spinning plates with a new internal power struggle between Russell and the school’s teachers, his disintegrating personal life, and his on-again, off-again bromance with his partner in crime. The result was a more diffuse season that relied more frequently on the strength of its two lead performances and their increasingly repetitive destructive antics that were ostensibly free from consequence.
The result, then, sees Vice Principals season 2 as a Frankenstein’s monster of sorts, a creature comprised primarily of familiar working parts that nonetheless feel incongruous and largely stitched together. The season’s early focus on uncovering the identity of Gamby’s attacker is soon lost in the shuffle of Russell’s ongoing efforts to maintain power and Gamby’s conflicted feelings about the criminal acts the two perpetrated against Principal Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hébert Gregory). That’s in addition to the unnecessary reset of Gamby’s relationship with Ms. Snodgrass (Georgia King) that put him back in the inequitable romantic orbit of his (SPOILER) unhinged attacker, Ms. Abbott (Edi Patterson).
Throw in a short stint by pompous author Brian Biehn (Fisher Stevens) as a dubious mentor and equally unlikely love interest for Ms. Snodgrass, and an almost fulfilling subplot wherein Gamby attempts to atone for a past mistake and gross abuse of his power by taking formerly expelled student Robin Shandrell (Conner McVicker) under his wing to guide him (mostly off screen, apparently) toward a successful school year, and the season’s circuitous route to unraveling a mystery is waylaid by a mostly surface-level examination of noxious behavior and an equally toxic friendship.
Though the season didn’t necessarily come together as a complete whole, the finale still managed to deliver a wild conclusion that, if nothing else, was in keeping with Hill’s other works, especially the shockingly violent end to the writer-director’s somewhat maligned Observe and Report. But even with the inclusion of a hilariously bad CGI tiger eating its abusive handler and later mauling Russell, who’d already survived an earlier gunshot wound to the head from the now completely deranged and murderous Ms. Abbott, who later attacked Ms. Snodgrass in the school’s ladies’ room, resulting in an impressive knock-down, drag-out brawl worthy of a series finale, ‘The Union of the Wizard and the Warrior’ somehow felt too tame. The finale owes a lot to the series’ established descent into the unreal, mostly for comedic purposes, but that slide also meant an increased expectation for Vice Principals to go further with its destructive impulses, even if that meant killing its two darlings — which the series only flirted with two time too many.
There was a brief moment when it seemed as though the series had actually killed Russell in such unceremonious fashion that the shock would have resonated even more strongly than Gamby’s shooting at the end of season 1. But it pulled back, allowed Russell to live, and in doing so delivered a far more pat ending than a show as gleefully irresponsible as Vice Principals probably should have delivered. Gamby and Russell don’t deserve happy endings, and while their respective conclusions could be read as the show commenting on the ways horrible people get anything but what they deserve, there’s not enough evidence to suggest that’s really what Vice Principals was going for. To be fair, the show was never about comeuppance but it wasn’t about redemption either, as neither one occurred in convincing enough fashion for a case to be made.
As funny and startlingly violent as it often was, Vice Principals season 2 and ‘The Union of the Wizard and the Warrior’ in particular don’t really advance the work of Hill and McBride in the way, say, Eastbound and Down did in the wake of The Foot Fist Way. Looking back, perhaps the two-season arc confined the series too much, and it might have been better served by either ending with season 1 or continuing on for several more seasons to better explore the toxic friendship between its two leads. Either way, after ending its first season on an unexpectedly shocking note, the series finale never quite managed to do the same.
Vice Principals seasons 1 & 2 are available to stream on HBO GO and HBO Now.
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