Attempting to create a veneer of paving new ground in television is, perhaps, as noble a pursuit as giving people more of a good thing. One fantastic example of this is Larry David: the quality of Curb Your Enthusiasm has vacillated slightly, and its appeal shifted as plots became more unwieldy, but the series never compromised its modest vision. David’s 2013 HBO original film Clear History found many of the same points of reference in its humor, but with plenty of surface-level eccentric touches and some new collaborators.
Since the likes of everyone from Woody Allen and Will Ferrell — perhaps — have delivered more of the same in comedy over multiple projects (or endless ones) they’ve all earned a bad rap. But David has none of the pretension and bad taste of Woody Allen — despite the fact that he agreed to star in Whatever Works. He also has a tighter sense of quality control than Ferrell, Adam Sandler, or any number of film comics with a specific sensibility that transfigures whatever project they’re working on.
The same is true of actor and writer Danny McBride and his new half-hour comedy Vice Principals, featuring the same creators and many of the same faces as his ex- and well-beloved HBO series Eastbound and Down. Vice Principals is also about a self-delusional asshole of a school administrator (in this case, vice principal Neal Gamby) wrestling with his own demons, being politically incorrect (ludicrously misogynistic, racist), and sometimes being charming, if only in his sheer cluelessness about how to make anyone like him.
It’s nice to see Vice Principals as a new addition to HBO’s perennially troubled lineup (we need a lot to wash down the memory of Vinyl): a definitely modest show — if frequently deeply, dark — not biting off more than it can chew. It feels both outdated and contemporary — full of button-pushing moments without being cruel. Gamby’s casual misogyny — “I know that driving doesn’t come naturally to women” — and racism sends up apropos, dangerous norms in different parts of this country with a sharp edge. He talks down to cafeteria staff and speaks in a deep, stock Asian accent to a Korean-American with perfect English. He disparages the hire of his enemy, Kimberly Hebert Gregory’s new (black, female) principal Dr. Belinda Brown (“I’m pretty affirmative about how she got [into Berkeley]”). McBride renders this as perfectly unforced parody, reflecting on the world outside of the show without playing its hand too heavily, and finding a way to wring humor out of it.
Vice Principals is less laugh-out-loud funny than Eastbound and Down — and unfortunately, Bill Murray doesn’t last past the pilot — but the situational humor and pacing is just as skilled. Antagonist/eventual Gamby co-conspirator Walton Goggins threatens to outshine McBride as Gamby’s fellow vice principal Lee Russell. The decadently dressed, seethingly sarcastic Lee is a committed suck-up with an even more destructive, nihilistic determination to seize power than Gamby, who spits in his mother-in-law’s tea to prove that he “fucking owns her” and insults and challenges Gamby into doing whatever devious anti-Principal Brown maneuvers he wants.
What HBO needs, and perhaps TV in general, is more low-stakes but solid programming that knows exactly what it is. It’s neither dated, by-the-numbers-sitcom-y escapism, nor is it a comedy-that’s-more-than-a-comedy. For this reason, Vice Principals is as intelligent as any show on TV, a positive extension of HBO Studio’s increasingly solid comedic legacy.