Mini-review: Vice Principals 1×1 (US: HBO; UK: Sky Atlantic)

Eastbound and high


In the US: Sundays, 10.30pm, HBO
In the UK: Tuesdays, 9.35pm, Sky Atlantic. Starts July 26th

This year, it seems, is the year that US TV has decided it wants not only to go back to school but to go back to school childishly. “Being an adult hard? How about a bunch of teachers who behave like kids? Wouldn’t you like to watch that?” seems to be the theory.

We’ve already had Teachers and Those Who Can’t from TV Land and TruTV respectively, offering us just that, and now we have HBO’s efforts at the same, Vice Principals, in which Walton Goggins (Justified, The Shield, The Hateful Eight) and Danny McBride (Eastbound and Down, Tropic Thunder) are – yes, you guessed it – vice principals at the same US High School. Goggins is the sweet-talking but ultimately two-faced popular one; McBride is the foul-mouthed, inadequate dick that everyone hates; both hate each other.

Then the principal (Bill Murray – yes, Bill Murray) decides to stand down for the sake of his sick wife, prompting a contest between his deputies to replace him, only for both their dreams to be dashed as outsider Kimberly Hebert Gregory (Devious Maids) gets the top spot instead. My enemy’s enemy is my friend so McBride and Goggins unite to defeat their new opponent – but such is their ineptitude, all’s that likely is mutually assured destruction instead.

The show has several strands of (attempted) comedy. With McBride co-creating and writing, as per Eastbound and Down, it’s not surprise there’s his usual parade of attempted alpha male put-downs, extreme dickery and inappropriate teaching methods, here filtered through a more inadequate, more self-aware, less sports-obsessed prism than Kenny Powers. There’s also the childish squabbling between McBride and Goggins, and their frequently politically incorrect antagonism towards Gregory’s ‘smart, sassy black woman’ routine – which, subtly, is itself as manufactured as both McBride and Goggins’ facades.

But despite all those elements at play, Vice Principals isn’t hugely funny, except towards the end of this first episode when the two enemies unite, and largely feels like watered down Eastbound and Down. McBride’s ex-wife Busy Philipps (Cougar Town) doesn’t get to do much beyond be the butt of his ineptitude, while Shea Whigham as her new husband largely gets to play the unexpectedly nice guy that McBride doesn’t quite know how to deal with, without getting to cause any laughs himself. 

An almost-interesting looking at failing masculinity and petty power struggles, Vice Principals might get better in its second episode when hostilities take off. The fact that it’s a definite two-season, 18-episode run means that it should have a fixed story arc that takes as long as it needs, no more, no less, which is another plus. At the moment, though, it feels like it needs work: must try harder.

Author

  • I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.