The new comedy from Danny McBride and Jody Hill — the men who brought you the magnificent Eastbound & Down — is Vice Principals, premiering on HBO on Sunday. It stars McBride and Walton Goggins of Justified as dueling high school vice principals; both aspire to be principal. The stakes in this show are very low and so is the humor — sometimes delightfully so.
McBride is Neal Gamby, who shares one trait with Kenny Powers of Eastbound & Down: an arrogance exceeded only by his cluelessness. Unlike the explosively anarchic Powers, however, Gamby is truly invested in his goal to become principal — he really thinks he can be a good administrator and make a difference. Goggins’s Lee Russell is more unabashedly cynical, desiring power for power’s sake — and the option to fire Gamby, should Russell succeed in attaining higher office. Standing in both men’s way is the newly appointed principal, Dr. Belinda Brown, played by Kimberley Hebert Gregory. She gets what Gamby and Russell are up to from the moment she arrives, and much of the fun of Vice Principals is seeing how easily she foils their most elaborate schemes to displace her.
It must be said that overall, Vice Principals is a more temperate — at times it’s even placid — work than Eastbound. While capable of occasionally incendiary humor — sometimes literally incendiary, as in a joke gone wrong that Gamby and Russell play on their new boss in the second episode — Vice Principals is McBride and Hill’s move into a new tone of suppressed discontent. Where McBride imbues Gamby with some poignancy, beneath his bluster, Goggins plays Russell as a fussy man with a vicious streak.
The most successful aspect of the show is that you can believe they would be enemies temporarily united as allies for only as long as it takes to dislodge Dr. Brown — something doesn’t look likely, given how formidable she is. Also in the cast are the likable Busy Phillips, who deserves more to do as Gamby’s ex-wife, and Shea Whigham — Eli Thompson from Boardwalk Empire — who is excellent as the ex-wife’s new husband and a refreshing variation on that kind of sitcom character, which is to say he’s a nice, if goofy, guy. Indeed, discovering the niceness in people, as well as allowing for a wide variety of emotions, lends episodes of Vice Principals, at its best, to offer the satisfaction of a collection of vivid short stories.
Vice Principals airs Sunday nights at 10:30 p.m. on HBO.