HBO to Viewers: Please Report to the ‘Vice Principals’ Time Slot

By Mark Walsh — July 14, 2016 4 min read
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Viewers who have been paying attention to the coarse-ification of the Hollywood image of educators in recent years (think of “Bad Teacher,” the popular movie and short-lived TV series, as well this past season’s cable sitcoms “Teachers” and “Those Who Can’t”) might want to hold tight to their couch.

HBO on Sunday (10:30 p.m. Eastern and Pacific times) debuts “Vice Principals,” its new comedy about two foul-mouthed, ambitious but bumbling administrators at what seems like a fairly typical American high school.

I can predict the reactions likely to come from some in the education community who have decried the scheming, partying teacher portrayed by Cameron Diaz in “Bad Teacher” and similar depictions of educators whose adult interests invade the school day.

They won’t like “Vice Principals” from the start because of its pay-cable payload of four-letter words, its depiction of educators with hidden agendas, and some plot points that would be downright disturbing if they weren’t so farcical. (If you can accept breaking and entering and accidental arson as farce.)

After previewing the first three half-hour episodes of the show, I can only don my critic’s hat and say that “Vice Principals” is pretty funny most of the time, exposing some of the quirks of education bureaucracy and high school culture in our country.

“Vice Principals” starts with a cameo appearance by Bill Murray as the outgoing principal of North Jackson High School, somewhere in North Carolina. We immediately meet his deputies, and the stars of the show, Neal Gamby (series co-creator Danny McBride) and Lee Russell (Walton Goggins).

(Unfortunately, HBO’s trailers for the show are “not safe for work,” as they say, because of heavy swearing. But here’s a short promo whose worst word is “hell":)

Gamby is the heavier-set vice principal in the sweater vest and traditional tie, who is apparently in charge of discipline. Beside challenges at school, Gamby is a divorced day whose ex-wife (Busy Philipps) has a new love interest with whom Gamby must compete for the attention of his young daughter.

Russell is the thin, slightly preppy one whose vice principal portfolio seems less defined but who keeps a dossier on everyone in the school.

With the principal’s seat (and parking space) open, both Gamby and Russell believe they deserve the post. The school board and/or the district superintendent soon disabuse them of that by hiring an experienced principal from outside the district, Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hèbert Gregory).

And, yes, “It’s Dr. Brown,” she informs them, in a nod to educators’ sensitivity to getting recognition (deserved or not) for their Ed.D.'s or Ph.D.'s.

While Gamby and Russell fiercely and profanely dislike each other, they soon agree to work together to undermine the new principal. The problem is, Dr. Brown (yes, we’ll call her that) seems to be as much of a schemer as her vice principals are. She soon brings in a mysterious consultant to evaluate practices and personnel at North Jackson High, with the notion that underperformers will be shown the exit.

The vice principals’ secret plot to find dirt on Dr. Brown quickly reaches absurd farcical extremes. But by the third episode, which is downright sweet (in relative terms), the plot is on the backburner. Gamby finagles his way onto the overnight field trip to a historic village, mainly because he has a romantic interest in English teacher Amanda Snodgrass (Georgia King).

What I like about “Vice Principals” is that it gets so many little things about education right: The titles and consultants, as well as the insight of the cafeteria workers and the sweet receptionist in the main office. (Those office ladies always seem to be either clueless or all-knowing.)

The show is primarily about the teachers and administrators, and the students are relegated to bit players. But the production doesn’t skimp on extras (big school assembly scenes) or exterior shots.

McBride, who played a pro baseball player turned physical education teacher in the HBO series “Eastbound & Down” a few years ago, told The New York Times recently that he and co-creator Jody Hill, his college classmate, had first contemplated a movie screenplay some 10 years ago about the high schools they had attended.

McBride also drew inspiration from the show working as a substitute teacher while an actor, and in visiting the teacher’s lounge, he told the Times, “It was the first time where I realized these people want to be here less than these students.”

The scene was like a 1980s teen comedy, McBride told the Times, “but all the adults are going through those social crises that are usually for the nerdy 15-year-olds.”

“Vice Principals” is distinctive in another regard: HBO has confirmed that the show will have a limited, two-season run of 18 episodes. McBride has suggested the premise could then live on in some other form.

So at the end of those two HBO seasons, there may or may not be a new principal at North Jackson High School to replace Dr. Brown. And it may or may not be Gamby or Russell. But the rest of the school will go on.

As they like to say in education, which applies equally to television: This too shall pass.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.