Still In Character
by ALEX CARNEVALE
creator Jody Hill & Danny McBride
The concept of having an African-American woman as their boss is anathema to both Neil Gamby (Danny McBride) and Lee Russell (Walton Goggins). In order to get their revenge, they destroy her house and torch it to the ground. Racial hatred has never found such a receptive vehicle as this HBO comedy, which at times seems like merely a tribute to the brilliance of Jody Hill and McBride’s last serial, Eastbound & Down. The pair run from the domicile of Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory), which erupts in flames.
Blackface is always wrong, but admist the furor over a group of white racists who won a prize in a British parade by wearing face makeup to resemble the bobsled team from the Disney film Cool Runnings, a friend of mine asked me why it wasn’t racist when Robert Downey Jr. did the same thing as part of his portrayal of a devotee of the Stanislavsky method in Tropic Thunder. I said, “What makes you think that wasn’t racist?”
One major aspect of good satire is that it is not mean-spirited to other, unintended targets. In its effort to satirize the white racist baseball pitcher named Kenny, Hill and McBride never made his memorable sojourn to Mexico an additional subject of critique. Were there parts of the depiction of Mexicans which were problematic? Sure, but no more so than most. Vice Principals dispenses with such considerations: it is mean spirited to absolutely everyone, which makes the act of watching the show something like watching a Louis CK set now that we know he masturbated in front of other comedians.
McBride’s character of Neil Gamby is quite different from his last effort. Neil still does the same predictable McBride physical comedy in which he ineffectually flails at his surroundings. McBride is always amusing as he displays his astonishing range of facial expressions and perfect verbal timing. The only somewhat dull part of Eastbound & Down was that Kenny never stepped back from his confidence and braggadocio to consider his situation. Neil does this a lot, and while it makes him a lot more realistic human being, it also makes his racist behavior far less forgivable.
Goggins lives with his wife Christine (Susan Park) and her mother. When Neil shows at his door and sees Christine, he begins to speak slowly, even though she is of course a native English speaker. We are to believe the same man who speared a portrait of a black family and burned down their house goes home to his interracial marriage. These kinds of touches attempt to muddy the simple truth of Vice Principals — without even necessarily meaning to, it becomes a show about how subtle hatred turns open hatred.
It doesn’t help that Vice Principals is not very much fun to watch, either. The rest of the teachers are pretty indulgent of Lee and Neil’s bad behavior, and the hijinks they perform in front of staff and students are neither outrageous nor particularly amusing. Dr. Belinda Brown is made the hero of Vice Principals in comparison, but even she is brought substantially lower just by the fact of allowing these bigoted individuals to remain in positions of power.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.