‘Vice Principals’ series premiere review: Danny McBride, Walton Goggins draw some laughs

“Vice Principals” is a little bit of a strange beast for HBO. Rather than the typical comedy series where you put out a batch and hope to be renewed for more, this show already has its entire episode order. There are nine episodes coming this summer, and presumably nine more coming in 2017. Co-creators Danny McBride and Jody Hill have the idea of telling a complete story here that is almost the comedic equivalent of a limited series, and it will be interesting to see if packing in the stories leads to a greater comedic effect.

What we can at least say is that one episode in, the show is very much funny. At times it’s fairly predictable and a little too obnoxious, but McBride and Walton Goggins help to sell it past its occasional stumbling blocks, including the absurdist idea that someone like McBride’s Neal Gamby would be able to work as a Vice Principal anywhere. This character is an obnoxious heel, and a guy shown to have very little redeeming qualities other than caring for his daughter. He’s obsessed with getting the Principal position at the school following the departure of the former boss (Bill Murray), and as a result of that, engages in squabbles aplenty with Goggins’ Lee Russell, a butt-kisser in tight pants who is the perfect opposite end of the spectrum from Boyd Crowder.

Here’s the problem: Neither party ends up getting the job, and it instead goes to Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory), a woman far more qualified for the job than either one of them. From here, the story becomes one of sabotage, but the two have completely different ways of making it happening. Gamby tries to push a previously-suspended student to start a revolt, promising him a clean permanent record if he succeeds. (Here’s a surprise: It doesn’t happen.) Meanwhile, Russell tries more behind the scenes to win Dr. Brown over and lure her into a false sense of security.

Seeing the two former candidates team up against the new principal was a move we saw coming from the opening minutes of the pilot, but when you’ve got two actors of this caliber and two clearly-defined characters, we don’t quite mind. The show is at its best when McBride and Goggins are on screen with each other, and the writing is sharp and perfectly ridiculous. The character leaving the most to be desired after one episode is teacher Amanda Snodgrass (Georgia King), but that is mostly the fault of the writing for painting her as a one-dimensional character created for Neal Gamby to stare at. Maybe that changes when we have more time with her, such much of the premiere looked at her through Neal’s eyes. Gamby’s ex-wife and new man Ray are tremendous, mostly thanks to Neal’s utter hatred for Ray, who seems on paper to be fairly supportive and even-keeled.

While we’re not going to say “Vice Principals” has set a new standard for HBO comedy through one episode, it’s funny and it goes by quickly. For the first episode of a show in this genre, we’re really not asking for much more. Grade: B+.

Stay tuned for more episode reviews throughout the season.

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