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‘Vice Principals’ has a tag team to love and hate

Danny McBride and Walton Goggins prove an irresistible pair in an absurd and compelling comedy

Walton Goggins and Danny McBride in ‘Vice Principals’.
Walton Goggins and Danny McBride in ‘Vice Principals’.

A limited-series comedy is a rare and wonderful thing. We live in a time when television comedies are either axed due to a dip in popularity or after a long run which, almost inevitably, involves some jumping of the shark. This colourful phrase entered our lexicon when The Fonz, the leather-wearing, finger-snapping king of cool, waterskied over an actual shark in a Happy Days episode, a point that marked a downward spiral for the show. Admittedly, the show did end up hanging around for seven more seasons, but things were never as jukebox-smackingly cool.

For better or worse, comedies these days are written with the intent to stay. We bemoan the premature cancellation of our favourites, watch as they are occasionally resurrected by streaming channels, and eventually—in hindsight—sigh at those bits that don’t gleam as brightly as the rest. The idea of a finite show, where the story isn’t allowed to spill over and digress beyond an intended point, is mostly seen with drama shows which get to play out like long movies, films that are allowed breathing time. When did you last watch a funny miniseries?

Vice Principals, created by Danny McBride and Jody Hill, finished its 18-episode run a few weeks ago, and the report card for their schoolyard shenanigans is an excellent one. The HBO comedy, streaming in India on Hotstar, revolves around two unashamedly ambitious vice-principals at a high school. In the first episode, principal Bill Murray retires and decides to bring in someone new instead of his deputies, the obnoxious Neal Gamby (McBride himself) and the serpentine Lee Russell (Walton Goggins), both of whom have been preparing for the big chair. The rivals, spurned into action by this oversight, join forces to take the new principal down.

Unfortunately, that is not a turn of phrase. They burn her house down. And arson, I assure you, is but an appetizer.

Gamby and Russell are characters we’ve seen before. They are the guys who have a couple of scenes as surly superiors in high school movies, guys who are mean without reason to perky leading men, gym teachers whom the audience laughs at, administrative figures written in order to be loathed. Vice Principals takes them front and centre and gives us a ringside view to their brain, to their frequent mediocrity and their desperate attempts to claw their way out of it. This is a strange and oddly satisfying show, one that looks to side with the hideous, take us alongside them, and yet a show that emerges triumphantly humane.

The primary reason to watch this show is Goggins. As the bizarrely narcissistic and aggressive dandy Russell, he plays a tremendous manipulator who switches sides so often it’s a wonder he can keep track. He’s a silver-tongued old school scoundrel, one who hisses his way out of trouble and who can be almost effortlessly creepy in a way that seems second nature. Just when we begin to think the homey Russell isn’t so bad after all, he ends up asking far too specifically about the well-being of an underage girl. Make no mistake, Russell is terrible news.

McBride, as the fumbling Gamby, is less evil but just as culpable. He’s nudged into villainy by his crooked counterpart, and the two strike up a weirdly touching friendship, based on lies and love of their job. Lines are crossed, enemies are chosen and destroyed, and somewhere in the middle of it all, there are gunshots. This, more than anything else, is a show where things escalate quickly.

The first season feels like harmless fun until, very quickly, it doesn’t. The second season starts out dark and gets darker still, but—and this is where the applause needs to kick in—it stays relentlessly funny. The adventures of Russell and Gamby might not be the stuff to inspire young minds, but the rollicking rhythm of their at-all-costs exploits is hard to resist. The supporting cast is a hoot, especially Edi Patterson as a gloriously unhinged Spanish teacher with an implausible case of the hots for Gamby, and the show frequently embraces high school movie tropes (romance, underdog film, mystery) only to brutally subvert them. Nothing goes according to plan.

Vice Principals is a show about highly immoral protagonists, characters who keep justifying the selfishness of their actions. By keeping us on their side—and amused by them—creators McBride and Hill do something rather prickly in the way they toy with our sympathy. We feel for these wretches because of their abhorrent decisions and shake our heads at their complete disregard for people around them, certainly, but perhaps because of how committedly straight-faced the performances are, we relate to these fools. They muck around more than most of us would, I imagine, but there are some instincts of theirs that we would all relate to even if we would never act on them. Or so we hope. School’s out—as is the jury.

Streaming tip of the week

Those in the mood for something marvellously bonkers should check out Chris Smith’s peculiar documentary Jim And Andy: The Great Beyond on Netflix. Produced by Spike Jonze, the film details the extent of Jim Carrey’s madcap commitment to play iconic comedian Andy Kaufman in Miloš Forman’s Man On The Moon. There’s nothing quite like it.

Stream Of Stories is a column on what to watch online.

Raja Sen tweets @rajasen

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