Vice Prin­ci­pals has an attitude prob­lem

The Hamilton Spectator - - A & E - HANK STUEVER

If you can get through the first two puerile episodes — and that’s a big if — of Danny McBride and Jody Hill’s mean-spir­ited school com­edy “Vice Prin­ci­pals” (pre­mièring Sunday at 10:30 p.m. on HBO), you’ll prob­a­bly no­tice a much bet­ter and pos­si­bly smarter work of satire lurk­ing just out of reach.

“Vice Prin­ci­pals” first comes across as a show with only one joke to tell, like some­thing that crawled from a sep­tic tank filled with VHS copies of long for­got­ten ’80s com­edy films, with McBride (“East­bound & Down”) star­ring as Neal Gamby, a foul-mouthed, thick­headed oaf who hap­pens to be vi­ceprin­ci­pal of North Jack­son High School, some­where in a leafy-green South­ern sub­urb.

Af­ter the res­ig­na­tion of North Jack­son’s prin­ci­pal (Bill Mur­ray in a brief cameo), Gamby feels cer­tain he’s next in line for the job, were it not for his un­friendly ri­val, Lee Rus­sell (Wal­ton Gog­gins), a fe­ro­ciously fey vice-prin­ci­pal who also feels en­ti­tled to the pro­mo­tion.

Both men, unan­i­mously loathed by their col­leagues and stu­dents, are sur­prised when the su­per­in­ten­dent hires a highly re­garded Philadel­phia ed­u­ca­tor, Dr. Belinda Brown (Kim­berly He­bert Gre­gory), for the job.

De­ter­mined to get the new prin­ci­pal fired, Gamby and Rus­sell form an un­holy al­liance, de­ploy­ing a series of cruel schemes that might have once seemed comedic but in­stead come across as far too ex­treme — es­pe­cially since their ire is di­rected at a black woman try­ing to run a school.

It’s not long be­fore the two men break into her house, de­stroy it and set it on fire.

On an­other oc­ca­sion, they pose as van­dals from a ri­val school and spray-paint a de­pic­tion of Dr. Brown’s vagina on the school walls with deroga­tory lan­guage. Laugh­ing yet? Only af­ter you’ve heard enough (and en­dured more of McBride and com­pany’s mis­placed faith in blunt, overly broad hu­mour), does “Vice Prin­ci­pals” make an in­ter­est­ing pivot, tak­ing us briefly into the world of Dr. Brown.

Af­ter the house fire she and her sons move into a mo­tel, where she briefly con­sid­ers re­sign­ing and mov­ing back to Philadel­phia.

Does she have the re­solve to stay and fight?

It’s re­ally not a critic’s job to write a review of a show that might have been, but “Vice Prin­ci­pals” is one of the rare oc­ca­sions when I can’t help but won­der what it would look like if it were re­cut as a more se­ri­ous, dark com­edy called “Prin­ci­pal,” about a mi­nor­ity fe­male ad­min­is­tra­tor who gets as­signed to a school where two of her white male col­leagues are try­ing to un­der­mine her au­thor­ity.

Gre­gory is ter­rific as Dr. Brown — and the only times I laughed out loud at “Vice Prin­ci­pals” came dur­ing scenes in which she out­smarts her ad­ver­saries.

Per­haps that’s by de­sign. “Vice Prin­ci­pals” also im­proves in later episodes when it shifts its fo­cus away from inane, ac­ri­mo­nious stunts and delves deeper into Gamby’s and Rus­sell’s pri­vate lives and their self-in­flicted emo­tional wounds.

(It’s telling that Dayshawn, a friendly, pot-smok­ing cafe­te­ria worker played by Sheaun McKin­ney, as­sumes that the rea­son Gamby and Rus­sell keep sneak­ing off into the woods be­hind the school is be­cause they are se­cret lovers.)

As with “East­bound & Down,” McBride is best when his char­ac­ter’s out­size ego gets bruised or brought low.

“Vice Prin­ci­pals” is the third ca­ble com­edy this year set in the public-school mi­lieu (in­clud­ing TruTV’s “Those Who Can’t” and TV Land’s “Teach­ers”), fol­low­ing a dis­mal tra­di­tion of dumb films and TV shows that col­lec­tively den­i­grate the teach­ing pro­fes­sion.

I sup­pose co­me­di­ans may very well carry lin­ger­ing an­i­mos­ity to­ward the teach­ers and ad­min­is­tra­tors who didn’t ap­pre­ci­ate their ear­li­est ma­te­rial, but these shows of­ten fail to do their home­work, pre­sent­ing sit­u­a­tions and char­ac­ters that never reach the verisimil­i­tude of other painfully real satires, the way “Veep” nails pol­i­tics, or “Get­ting On” un­der­stood hospitals, or “Sil­i­con Val­ley” im­bues (and then skew­ers) the tech in­dus­try.

“Vice Prin­ci­pals” al­most be­comes a show like those — and it may yet still, if it would just straighten up and fly right, as one of the prin­ci­pals who haunts my teenage mem­o­ries used to say.

FRED NOR­RIS, HBO

Danny McBride, left, as Neal Gamby and Wal­ton Gog­gins as Lee Rus­sell in “Vice Prin­ci­pals.”

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