What makes 'Vice Principals' different from most modern cringe comedy?
Since the first time I saw The Foot Fist Way, I have been a fan of the work of Jody Hill and Danny McBride. They have a number of other regular collaborators who are part of the wonderful work they’ve created together so far, and you can’t talk about them without also talking about Ben Best or Shawn Harwell or John Carcieri or David Gordon Green or Tim Orr or Joseph Stephens, because they’re all part of what I love about Observe and Report and Eastbound & Down and now Vice Principals.
I’ll have more to say about this season once it comes to a close next week, but today, I am struck anew by why I have such a strong reaction to the films that Jody Hill has directed, and I think I finally have a handle on it. I often find myself having a strong emotional reaction to something without being able to fully articulate why, which is one of the reasons criticism mattered to me as a film fan in the first place. It’s an attempt to explain how we engage with art, to put a name on those things that we react to even if we don’t fully know we’re doing it.
A few weeks back, there was an episode involving motorcycles and missing books called “The Foundation Of Learning,” and I must have watched it four times in the week after it aired. I ended up writing to Jody directly. In part, I wrote:
What I love about your work is that you have devoted a career to studying the way people either do or don't get a win in life. You know that there are no permanent versions of either, so your work drills down on the small wins and the small losses. Moments of victory or moments of humiliation, and that fine line between them. The ending of this week's episode is maybe the best example of that I've seen you pull off so far. Gamby loses, but then Gamby wins. And Lee savors his win before you hand him a brutal loss. For Belinda, that loss becomes a win in an upsetting way, while for Amanda, her loss might well become a really unexpected win. It's gorgeous writing, gorgeous direction, and the cast is so good together.
I’m particularly interested in the way his work examines what we consider a win or a loss, and how fleeting those feelings can be. That’s what made Eastbound & Down so consistently absorbing. Watching Kenny Powers constantly lose the things he thought he wanted in favor of the things he actually needed, and watching the slow dawning of his awareness of just how fleeting every victory was, and how hard-won they could be, was no less than watching someone slowly but surely develop a soul. I was discussing Vice Principals with some friends lately, and one guy mentioned how he can’t watch these shows because he thinks every character is an asshole, and to me, that misses the point.
Look at Neal Gamby, the character played by Danny McBride in Vice Principals. He’s certainly insecure and full of bluster, and he’s willing to cross some pretty profound lines in his effort to destroy Dr. Belinda Brown, played so brilliantly by Kimberly Hebert Gregory. But Gamby is also a guy whose insecurity is hard-earned. After all, his wife Gale (Busy Philipps) left him and took their daughter Janelle (Maya G. Love), and Neal feels himself getting squeezed out of his daughter’s life, no matter what he does. All he has is whatever authority he’s earned at work, and that is threatened by Dr. Brown’s arrival. He knows people don’t like him, and it makes him more defensive, more closed off.
Even more fascinating to me this year has been the arc they charted out for Lee Russell, played by Walton Goggins. Lee is much more overtly sinister than Neal. He keeps complex dossiers on everyone in the school so he can destroy them if he has to. Or wants to. Or just feels like it in passing. When he and Neal team up at first, he seems to be the far stronger of the two of them, but little by little, Lee has been revealed to be terrified and fragile in ways that are heartbreaking. He has no power in his own house, and feels constantly emasculated, and his attempts at winning power are more pathetic than evil.
What they’ve done beautifully over the course of the show is reveal what everyone on the show wants, and just how hard it is for any of them to get there. Belinda Brown may have seemed strong when she showed up, but she’s revealed the cracks in her humanity with each passing week. Her relationship with her estranged husband (Brian Tyree Henry) and her sons Mario (Deshawn Rivers) and Luke (RJ Cyler) is incredibly difficult, and she’s fragile when it comes to them. She is fiercely devoted to her job, to a fault, and the same confidence and determination that have made her successful can easily curdle to become arrogance and blindness, something that Lee has exploited.
For Belinda, revealing that human side of herself is a loss because of how it gets used against her. For Neal, revealing that human side of himself is a win because it seems to honestly be bringing him closer to Amanda Snodgrass (Georgia King), the teacher who seemed to be completely beyond him at the start of the series. At the same time, Neal can be his own worst enemy, as can Belinda, as can Lee. None of these people need anyone else to destroy them from the outside, because they are perfectly capable of destroying themselves.
Last night’s episode, “Gin,” ended with a long sequence involving Tanqueray and Dr. Brown that simply has to be seen to be believed. It is a remarkable meltdown, and it sets up the final episode of the season beautifully. But what fascinated me is how clearly they’re all starting to reach different places as people. Watch Neal as Belinda has her meltdown. He doesn’t feel good about what’s happening because he’s recognized something in her that he sees in himself, that same struggle with who he is and how he fits and whether or not anyone respects or even likes him. Lee can’t make that jump, can’t see anything but his own pain, and he even confesses that to Neal in the episode’s most naked moment. Whatever happens next week, sorting out how each of these characters defines winning or losing will be a dark and difficult pleasure. Jody Hill measures damage in millimeters, and when he twists a knife, he does it very, very slowly. But unlike most cringe comedy, he isn’t interested simply in bad behavior, but in the human frailty behind it, and the hope that drives it. I live for those little wins. We all do. And frequently, those little wins are all we get. I’m thrilled for you if you feel like you’ve beaten all of life’s challenges and everything is easy and wonderful. I don’t understand you, and I can’t remotely relate to you, but I’m thrilled for you. Congratulations. For most of us, though, a victory as simple as someone liking us back or recognizing a job we’ve done well or even just acknowledging the indignities that we all struggle with can mean the world, and no one is making more out of those moments right now than Jody Hill and the team behind Vice Principals.
Vice Principals airs Sunday night on HBO.