“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.