“If it’s not broke, don’t fix it” has always been a commandment in the comedy world. The best comedic actors can work in different projects recreating their already well-crafted persona. Take someone like Will Ferrell for instance, who has taken the idea of ID-driven, hubristic man-children and has made an empire out of it. Stupid arrogant anchorman, stupid arrogant race car driver, stupid arrogant figure skater; they’re all essentially the same but work due to the charms of their star.
Vice Principals star Danny McBride has etched out a successful career playing similar parts, but unlike Ferrell, McBride never worries about his bigheaded characters being likable. His version of the man-child is far uglier; his characters are always petty, nasty and there’s a palpable darkness, even a sadness to assholes like Fred Simmons from Foot Fist Way, McBride’s breakout film, and the notorious Kenny Powers from HBO’s Eastbound and Down.
Those characters were created with the help of director and McBride co-conspirator Jody Hill and Vice Principals marks their third crack at power trip, delusions of grandeur comedy, but in Vice Principals’ first episode it doesn’t seem clear why we’re rehashing this type of character for the third time. McBride can still make the word “motherfucker” funnier than almost any actor, dripping with disgust and unearned entitlement, but after mastering the part as Kenny Powers, how much longer will it play?
Vice Principals tries its best to break up the formula a bit by taking McBride’s petulant VP Neal Gamby and playing him against another unsavory son of a bitch in the form of Walter Goggins’ Lee Russell. Goggins is a brown nosing snake in the grass in snazzy pants, using Southern passive aggression to undermine McBride’s overzealous Gamby. The duo’s bickering, along with Georgia King’s polite repulsion to Gamby as new teacher Ms. Snodgrass, are the episodes highlights. Unfortunately, the pair don’t get enough to time out-petty each other, like dumping thumb tacks on each other’s desk, because the pilot has to spend more time setting up the series, which means less time letting the leads do their thing.
After North Jackson High School’s Principal (Bill Murray, let’s hope he returns) must resign due to his wife’s illness, the humorless, hated Vice Prinicipal Neal Gamby thinks he’s in line for the promotion. The new job would mean a lot to Gamby, a divorcé with little else happening in his life besides bossing around children. When Gamby loses the position to newcomer Dr. Belinda Brown, Gamby is forced to begrudgingly team-up with Russell to remove her from the picture.
The premiere episode certainly has its laughs, from McBride deeming the students “savages” and delivering foul-mouthed descriptions of the horrors of an in-school suspension, to the way Gamby dumps on his ex-wife’s friendly new boyfriend Ray, played with every-man affability by Shea Whingham. Still, the episode felt short and overly focused on getting us to Gamby and Russell’s uneasy-alliance. I’m certain Vice Principals has plenty of crude material left for McBride and Goggins, I just hope it adheres to a looser lesson plan in the future.