In the most recent episode of HBO’s “Vice Principals,” one of the title characters defecates in the courtyard fountain of a rival high school.
Later, his fellow VP attempts to dose his own school’s entire football team with a wicked hallucinogen in the hopes that it’ll cause them to lose a big game. And in a blazing display of both bravura and misogyny, the two men – played by Danny McBride and Walton Goggins – lash out at their new female boss with the help of a can of spray-paint and one of the most derogatory illustrations imaginable.
It’s excruciatingly mean, pervertedly nasty stuff.
If you can accept all that and move on, though, you may find co-creator Jody Hill’s dark humor and his fixation on good-old-fashioned American rage to be maddeningly, bizarrely absorbing.
“I think a main character can be flawed,” says Hill, a graduate of Concord High School in 1995 who moved to L.A. after graduating from UNC School of the Arts’ film program in 1999. “And I’m not talking about the cheap flaws that are in romantic comedies, like the guy who chases girls too much without realizing the perfect woman’s right there. It’s not that kind of crap, but it’s real flaws that make them hard to swallow.”
At its core, the series is about bickering vice principals Neal Gamby (co-creator McBride, a college buddy of Hill’s) and Lee Russell (Goggins, formerly of FX’s brilliant “Justified”); after they both get passed over for a promotion in favor of an outsider (Kimberly Hebert Gregory), they form an uneasy truce and set about trying to drive her out of office in alarmingly aggressive fashion.
The first three episodes establish the men as angry, pathetic loser-sociopaths who make you shudder to think what chaos fictional South Carolina school North Jackson High would descend into with either of them at the helm.
But in last Sunday’s Episode 4, the focus shifted to Gregory’s Dr. Belinda Brown, and it became clearer that – as with Hill and McBride’s previous HBO venture, “Eastbound & Down” – there’s more going on here than the broadly comic set-up might suggest.
You probably know, just by re-reading the first two paragraphs of this column, whether this show might be your cup of tea. What you probably don’t know, unless you read a lot of TV websites, is that “Vice Principals” has further polarized audiences by pitting two middle-aged white guys against a superior who happens to be both an African-American and a woman.
In a scathing analysis of the series, Vulture’s Jen Chaney wrote: “As Neal and Lee go to increasingly extreme efforts to undermine and threaten Dr. Belinda Brown ... it’s impossible not to wonder: At this very specific moment in America, do we really need to be laughing at two white dudes having so much fun trying to destroy a black woman?”
“Vice Principals” is an 18-episode closed saga that will wrap itself up in two seasons; in fact, Hill said the entire series has already been shot (filming took place in Charleston) and edited. Meanwhile, most of the show’s fiercest critics have only seen the first couple of episodes.
This makes Hill as mad as – well, about as mad as a pathetic sociopath who’s just been passed over for a promotion he is certain he deserves.
“For someone to think that they know where the show’s going in the first two episodes ... and that they can say how every shade of these characters is gonna be ... before seeing the whole series seems f------ crazy to me,” says Hill, who wrote and directed Episodes 1, 2 and 4. “You just don’t know how this is gonna go. People have no clue how we’re gonna play this. These snap judgments seem ridiculous.”
In an interview published in Vanity Fair earlier this week, Gregory (who plays the principal) defended Hill and McBride against the wave of criticism that’s washed over the show.
“I don’t think we would respond in the exact same way if Melissa McCarthy was the principal, and they did the exact same thing (to her),” Gregory told the magazine. “As a nation, as viewers, as (an) industry, we have to be ready to accept black women specifically competing and maybe getting what appears to be attacked by white men. That, to me, is casting equality.”
Frankly, it seems to me that you could find a way to take issue with the casting of the main characters no matter what combination of racial backgrounds and genders the creators populated those roles with – if you really, really wanted to.
Or you could just say, “This show is/is not for me,” and leave it at that.
“I am actually happy that people are talking about the show and debating the show,” says Hill, who has since moved on to directing and co-writing the forthcoming “The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter,” another comedy about American loserdom starring McBride and Josh Brolin.
“I mean, I definitely feel like I have my dream job. Making films and TV shows for a living, it’s what I’ve always wanted to do. So I’m extremely blessed when it comes to that – and grateful that anybody watches it at all.”
The series airs at 10:30 p.m. Sundays on HBO.