“At this very specific moment in America, do we really need to be laughing at two white dudes having so much fun trying to destroy a black woman?,” my colleague Jen Chaney wrote in her review of Vice Principals last year. I get it. I almost quit too. During its first season, the HBO comedy’s embodiments of toxic masculinity, Neal Gamby (Danny McBride, who co-created the show with frequent collaborator Jody Hill) and Lee Russell (Walton Goggins), did everything they could to undermine and terrorize Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory), all because they felt entitled to the principal job that she earned. In an early episode, they even burn down her house, but I actually found certain actions later in the season harder to stomach. I won’t spoil them just in case you want to catch up. Because I think you should. If you can.
After seeing much of Vice Principals season two, which was entirely directed by David Gordon Green instead of Hill, who directed season one, I can say it’s definitely worth it. As McBride explained to me, season one was about building a certain tension, about delaying judgment, and season two is the release. It’s Judgment Day. Even the people who like the first season said it was fascinating but laughless; that isn’t the case anymore. Vice Principals definitely feels like a comedy this time around and a special one at that. After watching an episode where Gamby, forced to substitute teach A.P. History, flails while trying to explain the Reconstruction period, I remembered feeling lucky that I stuck with it. In era of binge-watching, it is a rare experience, but by forcing the audience to sit in its discomfort, the payoff on the other end is magnified.
McBride still isn’t sure how he feels about it, though. He wanted to tell a different kind of comedic story, but he’s aware that doing so means that people who might have appreciated Vice Principals will never finish it. Ahead of Sunday’s season-two premiere, McBride and Goggins discuss the show’s unique structure, why they don’t want you to feel sympathetic for Gamby and Russell, and what a story conceived of a decade ago means under a Trump presidency.
There was a certain criticism in early reviews that it was unclear if the show was indicting the actions of these characters. And I felt that as I watched the show in real time, but then it all clicked with that final shot of season one, pun intended, with Gamby bleeding out on the pavement. The indictment came, but you wanted to give the audience the experience of sitting in that feeling as long as possible.
Walton Goggins: [Clapping] Well done, you.
DM: Our hope was to use people’s knowledge of what they’ve seen in other movies and shows against them, presenting these guys like they’re the heroes, and instantly, in the second episode, having them burn down their boss’s house. It keeps you, as an audience member, not sure of what you’re rooting for or what you want to have happen. It’s why we didn’t make it as a feature: In an hour and a half, we felt like you could see the writing on the wall, but spreading it out over 18 episodes, you’re allowed to take these detours and explore other characters and it suddenly makes you feel conflicted about where it’s heading. The type of comedy Jody and I have created before is not stuff you can give to a test audience. The average person isn’t necessarily going to gravitate towards it, and I think that’s because there’s a lot more going on than would appear.
It’s a give-and-take. Forcing people to watch it week over week and building that tension about the end goal is a more satisfying experience, but it means some people will lose out. A lot of both seasons is showing how bad these characters’ home lives are. How do you walk a line of explaining their behavior, but not necessarily justifying it?
DM: Ultimately, we’re not asking the audience to show sympathy for these guys. We’re just presenting what their story is. That’s the thing that’s most frustrating about these characters: You will see something in them that you might identify with, and then they still do shit you don’t want them to do. It’s not justifying behavior. It’s just making you frustrated at the way people are. It’s a character study, as much as Taxi Driver is on Travis Bickle. At the end of that movie you’re not like, “Man, isn’t he so sympathetic, these things he did?” It’s a fucked-up journey!
WG: I don’t wake up in the morning, judging this person. That’s not my job. I don’t have to fall in love with him or condone his behavior. My job has been around for thousands of years, man. I’m a storyteller and I try to look for stories that challenge me. For me, Lee Russell and Neal Gamby start off in such an emotional hole. They’re six feet under before they even step out of bed in the morning. I was just really, really curious about the source of this pain and their desire to share it with someone.
I was rewatching some press thing you guys did for the first episode, and it had a quote I hadn’t seen anywhere: “Vice Principals is a dark, strange, twisted tale about leadership, friendship, loyalty, and the fall of Western civilization.”
I was like, “He knew!” The show taps into a thing, coincidentally, that some might fear will lead to the collapse of Western civilization. Do you think as Southerners who’ve grown up more around certain people, you understand something that those in the Hollywood “bubble” might not?
DM: I don’t even think it has to be the South. It’s human nature. There can be a guy in the hills of L.A. or a guy in the hills of the Appalachian Mountains who act this way when they’re hurt, or don’t have what they need in life. I don’t know why, but we have been obsessed with the angry Southern man! Jody Hill and myself grew up in the South, and we’re proud of that, but we would’ve been considered the most liberal guys in the South. When you come to Hollywood, you’re considered conservative just because you’re from the South! And yet we went to art school! I didn’t hunt. I wasn’t into NASCAR.
WG: For example, I really don’t believe that the racial element was injected into the first season. I think that was an interpretation. It’s really more of a study of greed! Outside of this pain that these two guys obviously have from things that have happened in their life, it’s a narcissistic, unempathetic fucking nature that really can reflect our culture at times. Hopefully at the end of this, they’re going to be able to step outside of that and see what they truly can be and what they do need from other people.
Walton stopped by Late Night with Seth Meyers on September 13th to promote Vice Principals which premieres its second and final season this Sunday on HBO. During the interview, Walton talked about visiting New York with his son Augustus and a hilarious story from a telemarketer who happened to be a big fan of his. It was a great interview and worth a watch in case you missed it.
You can view high quality stills and HD captures from his appearance in the gallery now.
We talk to Danny McBride and Walton Goggins from HBO’s Vice Principals about being treated like their characters, typecasting, & wild fans.
WALTON GOGGINS: Yeah. It was a lot to be incarcerated for 14 hours a day, with your arms bound and your feet bound. I’m sure someone will do a YouTube of how many times Rip Taggart was hit. It was tough, mentally. I had a cappuccino at the beginning of the day and the middle of the day, and a beer at the end of the day, but you feel just a portion of the pain that people have gone through, in those circumstances. What an incredible experience. It was a real cathartic journey.
How did you read this script, see what it would put you through, and then say, “Yes, sign me up for that!”?
GOGGINS: I didn’t. I replaced Joe [Manganiello]. When Joe fell out, they said, “Let’s go to Walton.” I had a long conversation with them about it and, for me, I felt like I had an opportunity to really honor the struggle of men and women in our armed services, in a way that wasn’t political and it wasn’t about America. It was about the individual, and I think that that’s been neglected in the conversation. It was also a chance to have what has taken me upwards of six and seven years (with Justified and The Shield), respectively, that kind of a journey in eight episodes.
Whenever you hear stories about SEAL teams and their missions, you feel a sense of appreciation for what they do, but it’s hard to fully grasp what a job like that puts you through, physically and mentally. What most helped you in grasping just what being a SEAL really entails?
GOGGINS: Mitchell Hall was our tech advisor on Six. It was not with him, but I had a long conversation with a Navy SEAL, on my own, and he became a very good friend of mine. I noticed his behavior, early on, and something he was doing to compensate was curious to me. I had an opportunity to talk to him and he said, “You can ask me anything you want.” I said, “I’m only going to ask you one question, and either you’ll answer me honestly or you won’t. And if you don’t answer honestly, I completely understand and I really don’t have anything else to say. But if you do answer honestly, I have a feeling that you and I are going to be here drinking whiskey for a long time, and we’re really going to get into it.” I asked him the question and he answered me honestly, and then the conversation began. He let me see behind his curtain. He let me touch his humanity and experience how his humanity was affected by everything that he saw and that was asked of him. He’s an incredible human being. Most of us will never, ever experience the decisions they have to make in one day of their lives, let alone every moment of every day, and that affects everything around them.
These men and women in our armed services are expected to perform, both mentally and physically, in an arena of war, and also pay their cable bill and their house payment. I don’t understand how those two realities exist in the same space. It’s hard for me, and I’m just a storyteller. It’s hard for a guy or a woman who works from 9 to 5, every day, and certainly it’s much more difficult when you’re in these situations and you’re asked to fight for your country. I felt that it was very important to honor that struggle, in a way that took it out of politics and the flag and the message of your country. I wanted to just honor the individual, and I’m really proud of it.
When you see where this goes and you see this existential journey and you see this stalwart walk from this man who genuinely doesn’t want to deal with anything and who is forced to deal with all of it, and what he learns on the other side of that journey and what he learns along the way and what he teaches people along the way, it was special. I hope there’s a returning service man or woman that is able to see it and say, “You know what? That fucking guy cares about me. Those showrunners care about me. Those other actors on that show and the guy behind the camera and that director care about me.” That’s a good thing. Continue reading