I struggled with Vice Principals, but I did love it. The two-season HBO series had a mood like no other comedy on television: explosive and caustic, kinetic as a cartoon, and as painfully human as a cringe-comedy mockumentary. Throw everything at the wall, see what sticks; surprise, it’s a sticky grenade, kaboom! The show conjured up three characters I’ll never forget. Co-creator Danny McBride was Neal Gamby, a wannabe authoritarian with a lonely heart. Walton Goggins was Lee Russell, a stylish chatterbox with scorched-earth ambition, self-mythologizing but also self-loathing, like some god turned atheist. These two titular VP’s suggested different modes of masculinity — Gamby the old-school tough guy, Russell the refined hipster — but they were equally helpless man-children, wanting so badly to be loved and feared, desperate to prove their worth but only ever proving their lack thereof.
Their world crashed inward with the arrival of Unforgettable Character No. 3: new principal Dr. Belinda Brown, played by Kimberly Hebert Gregory. Gregory gave my favorite TV performance of 2016, imbuing Brown with an initial magisterial power and then shading internal turmoil (single mom, alcoholic past). Vice Principals began as the story of Gamby and Russell declaring war on Brown. They wanted to badly to be principal, and so they would take her down. Of course, only one of them could ever ultimately be principal, so right away their team-up was also a potential self-immolation, new allies waiting to stab each other in the back, like the White House and the Kremlin circa 1942.
The fact that Brown was an African-American woman gave the conflict a deeper resonance, a whiff of white male panic. In the second episode of Vice Principals, Gamby and Russell visited Brown’s house, started to break things, burned it to the ground. Russell took orgasmic pleasure in the destruction. Gamby wasn’t too sure — but he went along with his buddy, as good buddies have always done, only following orders. There were a lot of scenes like that in Vice Principals, comedy pushed to the dark brink and then all the way to the hellfire.
In season 2, Brown was mostly absent, a plot-essential development that nevertheless left a void. Now Russell was principal, and Gamby was trapped in a spiral that was also an ascension. Shot by a mysterious assailant, he saw enemies everywhere, became a paranoid wreck. But he was also rising to prominence in the school, become a beloved figure among the teachers who now hated the tyrannical Russell.
You could say, broadly, that season 2 built to their showdown — and that is what happened in the incredible penultimate episode. The two men fought, kicking and screaming, across the school, their faces clown-pale from the spray of a fire extinguisher. The camera followed them, patient, watching two 40-something men treat their school the way shooting games treat destructible environments. McBride himself directed that penultimate episode, which also had a school assembly staged like a fascist show trial and a whole-cast-dancing-together prom scene played for sincere romanticism. (Get this man behind a camera again!)
Sunday’s series finale matched the theatrics, but I worry that the show wimped out a bit. You wanted anarchy, and you got a bromance, a sense that all could be forgiven, so maybe nothing much really mattered. The finale began with Gamby as principal, taking over from the deposed Russell. He was preparing for a graduation ceremony that would end a very strange year for North Jackson. Things had turned out okay. He was in charge, and he was happily together with longtime crush Amanda Snodgrass (Georgia King).
And then former flame Abbott (Edi Patterson) showed up on his doorstep in a wedding dress, declaring her love. Russell arrived at that moment with a revelation: The person who shot Gamby last season was … Abbot, apparently gone femme fatale with jealous rage. Right about then, Abbott shot Russell in the face, trapped Gamby in a pit of spikes, and headed to graduation planning to murder Snodgrass.
Patterson’s performance was great throughout, and in hindsight I admire how she spent this season steadily building toward a full psychotic break. (The series playfully suggested that all the grown-up characters were halfway insane; never has “adulting” seemed more like a fragile performance.) But even Abbott’s mania was just a warm-up act. There was an actual living tiger in the school for graduation, and Abbott set it free. Russell tried to tame it, and almost lost a limb. Gamby yelled the beast down with a primal scream, and walked away standing tall.
I’ll never turn down a symbolic tiger, especially not one that makes me laugh by lingeringly devouring its abusive handler. This show was funny, man! But didn’t it feel like Abbot’s villainy was airdropped in, a final-act contrivance to unite Russell and Gamby for one last ride? The magic of Vice Principals was how you could never really track their relationship from one episode to the next. They could be the devil on each others’ shoulders, or they could be each others’ confessors, seemed to be best friends and worst enemies. And then this finale tied it up in a bow — absurd, clearly half-serious, but still, a little clean. “I love you,” Russell said, bleeding to what looked like death, and he bled out just enough to convince Gamby to say, “I love you” too.
Agree to disagree, but: You can throw “the bromance” on a speedboat and set it on fire for all I care. Few comedy subgenres so quickly descended into trope-y pointlessness. It didn’t start out terrible. Ten years ago, Superbad ended on a roughly equivalent note to Vice Principals, Jonah Hill and Michael Cera declaring their love for each other. But the context mattered: They were teenagers cusping on a decisive moment of evolution. That movie ended with the two young men walking off separately with young women, the implication being that they’d never be quite as close again. But then you get years of Entourage and Hangovers and Brody Jenner’s Bromance, grown-ass men enacting childish wish fulfillment as some kind of empowerment ritual.
And the best idea Vice Principals had, to be clear, was to play that empowerment straight, taking it to a farcical extreme. “This is the favorite year of my whole life,” said Russell, freshly divorced, newly unemployed, bleeding from what you could argue was a self-inflicted tiger wound. “But I liked it,” he insisted. “It was fun.” Goggins could make every line reading magical, dropped F-bombs like a fourth-grader who can’t believe how much fun it is to swear. This final summation was his best moment on the show. “I liked it. It was fun.” Doesn’t that sound a little bit like Walter White’s final confession? (“I liked it. I was good at it.”) Vice Principals at its best felt like the sitcom sibling to Breaking Bad — or maybe it’s more accurate to call it a show about Breaking Bad fans who loved Heisenberg and hated Skyler.
Not to say that Vice Principals should’ve ended like Breaking Bad. (Hey, I didn’t like that finale either.) But here we were at the limit of madness, with a symbolic tiger walking toward the two men who were the cause of all their own problems. (Seriously, the tiger was Russell’s idea!) And the wrap-up from there could only walk back to something like sanity, Abbott decisively rendered as the Bad Guy, Gamby and Russell the underdogs all over again. There were happy endings for all. Three months passed. Gamby and Russell had new jobs. So did Dr. Brown, who we saw earlier in the finale, already working at a fancy prep school.
Maybe you think the triumph was meant to be ironic. There was a heavy use of quotation marks around the last project McBride created with Jody Hill, Eastbound & Down. McBride’s Kenny Powers became a sort of icon, funny and terrible and yet somehow safe enough for advertisements. The quote mark defense came up constantly when you talked about Powers — he was supposed to be terrible, and McBride’s performance was purposefully unwinking. But Powers seemed built to be a misunderstood creature, a joke on toxic swagger that could also be an excuse for the same. Vice Principals was much funnier and much sharper, felt like a spiritual sequel but also an inquisition. Gamby and Russell weren’t Kenny Powers, but they both wanted to be, and at its best, the show around them suggested some greater national derangement, the possibility that the new American Dream was to just have some fun, man. You wanted some final decisive note here — but Abbott and the tiger together formed a couple quote marks around this finale, letting Gamby and Russell imagine one final time that they were the heroes in a story that so obviously had none.
But! Notable that the vice principals didn’t get to be principal, in the end. Gamby dropped his daughter off at his beloved North Jackson, no longer an employee, a stranger in his own land. He saluted the new principal, former second-in-command and real-tough-broad Nash (Dale Dickey.) Nash was flanked by two new vice principals, also women. The daughter, the woman authority figure, her lady lieutenants: North Jackson’s future is female. They can’t do worse.
SERIES GRADE: B+
FINALE GRADE: B-