This post contains spoilers for the first three episodes of Vice Principals.
Vice Principals is an HBO show about high school vice principals in a semi-generic town somewhere in the Carolinas. Until he was in his early 30s, my father was a high school vice principal in a semi-generic town in the Carolinas. I had the idea of watching the show with him, to see if it is to working in high schools what Silicon Valley is to navigating the byzantine and often illogical world of tech companies and VCs.
After watching the first episode of the show, my dad, the former real-life vice principal said, "I've seen cartoons more accurate than this show." He said this because of its main character Neil Gamby, portrayed by Danny McBride. Gamby swears in front of kids, openly lusts after teachers, forces his driver's ed students to chauffeur him around on errand runs, and generally behaves like a gigantic baby with a mustache and a clip-on tie. Halfway through the second episode, my dad paused the show and said, "They would never let that man around children."
So, yeah. Vice Principals is not necessarily a show about working at a high school. Instead, it's something altogether more crass and potentially fascinating—a character study of the type of pathetic, power-hungry white man whose meager stature comes from his whiteness and maleness, who's slowly losing what little status he has. In other words, Neil Gamby might be a cartoon character, but that cartoon character is an assemblage of very real attitudes finding a voice in the current election.
Even if they never made another movie or TV show again, Danny McBride and Jody Hill—who created Vice Principals—will live forever in the hearts and minds of millions for having made Eastbound and Down, a gleefully profane, absurd, and weirdly poetic show about Kenny Powers, a washed up, John Rocker–esque pitcher who moves back to his suburban North Carolina home in disgrace and becomes a substitute teacher.
It's easy to draw parallels between that show and Vice Principals—between their basic story arcs, their main characters' delusions and foul mouths, and the relish with which McBride drapes both Kenny and Neil's tubby frames in the least flattering clothes possible. In other words, it's tempting to say that Vice Principals is just Eastbound and Down 2.0.
There are certain commonalities that bind the shows together beyond the personnel involved. Each often invoke the abject tackiness of the modern Southeast through subtle in-jokes—in Eastbound and Down, one particularly dickish character is always wearing clothes reminding the viewer he went to Wake Forest, while in Vice Principals, the slogan of the regional fried chicken chain Bojangles—"It's Bo time!"—is used as a punchline. Both shows feature liberal use of slow-motion shots of unimpressive people doing unimpressive things soundtracked by edgy music, a gag that at this point has become something of a visual signature for Hill.
But there's a significant difference between the two shows, and that is this: Kenny Powers was a man of action. He lived life to the fullest, whether that meant taking steroids to get his arm back or becoming a semi-professional cockfight organizer. Even if he was a total psychopathic dickhead, you couldn't help but root for Kenny Powers, if only because of how sad it was to watch the guy act insane to make up for the fact that he wasn't a famous baseball player anymore.
You're supposed to laugh at Neil Gamby for being a white man who's too clueless to realize he can't blame others for his own inadequacies.
Neil Gamby is not Kenny Powers. He looks and talks like him, yes, but in reality he's like Kenny Powers' s older, pathetic cousin. He's divorced and going broke over paying the stabling fees on his daughter's horse. He has no friends, and the only person who seems to actively seek out his company is Ray, his ex-wife's new husband who rides dirt bikes and is sort of like what you'd get if you crossed a Florida Georgia Line song with a No Fear T-shirt. (Unfortunately, Neil's too insecure to ever actually want to hang out with Ray, so their interactions tend to consist of Ray saying something nice to Neil, then Neil telling him to fuck off.) He suffers from what appear to be PTSD-related flashbacks—in one scene, he hallucinates hearing gunshots and is set into a fury. The only thing he has going for him in his life is his position as vice principal of the nondescript North Jackson High School, where he takes his feelings of inadequacy out on teens as the school's head of discipline. No one likes him there, either—the teachers all think he's a ridiculous blow-hard, and the students are too young to know better than to fear him.
Throughout the first three episodes of Vice Principals, Gamby flails about with the impotent rage of a saber-toothed tiger trapped in a tar pit as his insignificant, brittle power and privilege slip through his sausage-like fingers. In the first episode, the North Jackson principal job that Gamby felt entitled to instead goes to Dr. Belinda Brown, an outsider with a bulletproof track record and a degree from Berkeley. In addition to being vastly more qualified for the job than Gamby is, she is also a black woman. By the end of the episode, Gamby's teamed up with his former rival, fellow vice principal Lee Russell, in an attempt to take Brown down. By the end of the second episode, the pair cruises on over to her house in a student driver car and end up burning the place down.
It should be fairly obvious that you are not supposed to root for Neil Gamby to succeed in defeating Brown, or even feel bad every time one of his pathetic schemes backfires right into his face. Instead, you're supposed to laugh at him for being a white man who's too clueless to realize he can't blame others for his own inadequacies. In this way, Danny McBride and Jody Hill's timing with Vice Principals couldn't have been any better: You can find Gamby's resentment of otherness, intense fear of change, single-minded devotion to law and order, and pointless brow-beating in Donald Trump and the type of white guys who will vote for him come November. And just like in real life, you're not supposed to root for that type of person. You hope he fails, and you hope he fails hard.
The Trump-Gamby parallels are particularly stark in the third episode, when he strong-arms joining several teachers as an additional chaperone on an overnight field trip to "Historic Charles Town," a made-up version of the extremely real, extremely goofy Southern high school field-trip institutions Colonial Williamsburg and Old Salem. On the bus ride over, Gamby engages in a power struggle with a hip, bike-riding history teacher over who gets to give a speech setting ground rules for the kids on the trip. Their argument, which involves Gamby's profanity-laced tough talk losing out to the history teacher's appeal for consideration and oneness, feels like the perfect allegory for the "political correctness" debate that America is currently embroiled in.
Things go smoothly enough in Charles Town—there is an unforgettable shot of McBride shooting two muskets into the camera while wearing khaki shorts, à la The Great Train Robbery—but it all goes to shit once everybody gets to the hotel, when Gamby catches the kids engaged in the time-honored field-trip tradition of surreptitiously drinking stolen booze and making out. Gamby screams, "What wine pairs with ten days ISS? A zinfandel? A fucking shiraz???" at the kids before realizing that two of the students are missing. Turns out the teachers were having a party of their own and hadn't been minding the kids, leading to the whole hullabaloo in the first place. As the teachers helplessly look to the racist, misogynist, mean-spirited bully to lead them out of the mess they've found themselves in, you can almost imagine Neil Gamby repeating Trump's mantra, "I alone can fix it."
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