Danny McBride's entire career has been built on being unlikable. In real life, he seems to be an incredibly pleasant and charming man, but his newest television show Vice Principals on HBO shows him in yet the latest of unlikable Danny McBride characters with a proclivity for profanity and being really mean to children. McBride's latest show, which he wrote and created alongside longtime collaborator Jody Hill, is the story of two cruel men desperate to hold on to their glory and fulfill their personal American Dream by getting into the Principal's chair that has been vacated by former principal (played in a subdued cameo by Bill Murray). However empathetic the pilot attempts to make these men, their harsh attitudes make it too difficult to empathize when the characters meant to be our protagonists.
It's only a minute and a half into the latest HBO comedy before Neal Gamby (Danny McBride) and fellow Vice Principal Lee Russel (co-star Walton Goggins) are throwing profanities and rude hand gestures at each other, and the interplay between these two actors showcase that these two personalities are a match made in heaven despite their mutual hatred. The moments between Gamby and Russel introduce an entertaining rivalry, but Gamby eventually reveals himself to be racist, misogynistic, and an all-around jerk over the course of the pilot.
Neal Gamby is not a good person, and the show makes no attempt to say otherwise. He still loves his daughter and seems to want the best for her, but he has a strong hatred for nearly everyone else in the world. When the new principal, Dr. Belinda Brown (played by Kimberly Hebert Gregory), shows up, Gamby wastes no time trying to tear down this prestigious candidate for the job, throwing around accusations that she only got the job because of affirmative action. At other points in the show, Gamby is shown to be leering at teacher Amanda Snodgrass (Georgia King), who he treats as the object of his affection.Vice Principal Lee Russel also gets in on the cruelty, but in a much less obvious way. The snake-like Russel is a sharp dresser who keeps his cruelty to himself and seems to understand that writing a complaint about the new principal and then sending it to the new principal isn't going to get very much done. Goggins performance is typically unhinged for the actor who made his name playing one of the wildest TV villains of the decade on Justified, and it's a testament to the lengths of Neal Gamby's behavior that Goggins easily comes off as the lesser of two evils.
The other characters that inhabit the world of Vice Principales, from students to teachers, are fully aware that Gamby has severe problems with how he views other people. Vice Principals is cringe-comedy in its purest form, introducing new ways for Gamby to embarrass himself and attempt to assert his non-existent power. In a show charged with language that offends the other characters, as well as the audience, it pushes the concept of discomfort to the point where treating the show as a comedy becomes difficult because it's not clear what the audience should be laughing at? Should we laugh at how the deplorable main character continues to embarrass themselves in pursuit of what they want? Are we laughing at how this man threatens bullied children to do his dirty work for him? The joke seems to stop at "he's a jerk."
Danny McBride gives an all-too-convincing performance as the type of character that he's perfected over his career. The show gives us insight into Gamby's life and what created this bitter, hardened man, and in these moments McBride shows his true strength as an actor. The show could continue to develop Gamby and Lee over the course of the show, but, for now, it does not make it easy to root for two broken men trying to break down a successful woman — but at least the show makes it clear to the other characters and the audience that these unlikable men are in the wrong.
Images: Fred Norris/HBO (3)