When I watched the first episode of Vice Principals, I considered just stopping and basing my rather scathing review on that alone. Thankfully, I didn’t.
The series is about two Vice Principals at a high school somewhere in a nameless southwestern town (my best guess). Neal Gamby (Danny McBride; Eastbound & Down) is a hard-nosed, drunk with power, painfully awkward and pathetic vice principal who rules with fear and an iron fist. Lee Russell (Walton Goggins; The Hateful Eight) is a Machiavellian, two-faced, metrosexual sociopath who will tear down your entire world with one hand while he pats you on the back with the other. They’re hopeful to get promoted to Principal when the former Principal (Bill Murray; Ghostbusters) retires to care for his sick wife. Their aspirations are crushed when the superintendent appoints Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) to be the new principal and Russel and Gamby are forced to team up to take her down and claim the position they feel they rightfully deserve.
The pilot was definitely the weakest of the series, focusing a lot on Gamby’s character instead of him and Russell together. Future episodes that are mostly about Gamby do get better, but McBride is essentially playing his character from Eastbound & Down here and brings that same level of uncomfortable comedy to this role. Fortunately, the character does go in some emotionally interesting directions throughout the series that make him less of a buffoon, but there were some early episodes where I missed Russell and wished he was the focus of the series if not at least an even co-lead along with McBride, but there are episodes that barely feature Goggins at all, and that’s disappointing.
After a few episodes, I couldn’t help but compare the series to Breaking Bad, except if Walt and Jesse decided that instead of building a billion dollar meth empire, they really really wanted to become high school principals. The way the series builds these characters and how their wants change and reprioritize over the course of the series is all really great, and not to give anything away, but the season ends in a wholly unpredictable way. As things played out in the last episode, I had a few theories about what was going to happen, and I ended up being completely wrong, and now I can’t wait for season 2 to start so I can see what happens next.
If I had to choose a weak aspect of the series besides the early episodes that focus on the Gamby character, it would be the Amanda Snodgrass character (Georgia King). She’s not a bad character, or badly played by King, but her character goes through some very quick changes in terms of her relationship with Gamby that it was difficult for me to buy as it was happening. Maybe if I were watching the series week to week, it would make more sense, but binging them all this quickly made it strange how her affections for Neal change from one episode to the next.
Another aspect of the series I’d like to see more of in future seasons is Ray (Shea Whigham) who plays Neal’s ex-wife’s new husband. Ray is a great character, who has a lot of respect and admiration for Neal despite him constantly giving him crap and blaming his problems on Ray on a regular basis. He has some great moments about not being able to live up to Gamby in the eyes of his daughter Janelle (Maya G. Love). He’s really great, and I hope he continues to grow within the series.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD from HBO Home Entertainment on February 7.