Fans of Eastbound & Down may experience a sense of déjà vu while watching Vice Principals. The dark comedies share creators, sensibilities and plots to an almost cannibalistic degree. Vice Principals isn't as good as Eastbound & Down, but it's not as good in the way that the Ramones' second album isn't as good as their first: this is what these guys do, and they're great at it; it's just not as fresh the second time around.
Eastbound & Down's first (and best) season was one of the most assured TV comedy debuts in recent memory. Co-creators Danny McBride and Jody Hill - along with Ben Best, who left the writing staff before Season 2 - knew exactly who washed-up MLB pitcher Kenny Powers (McBride) was when the show started: a narcissistic, endlessly overconfident egomaniac whose occasional glimmers of redeemability made you root for him. Plus, he was damn funny.
In that first season, Powers returns home to North Carolina and takes a job as an elementary school gym teacher. He alienates his family, coworkers and would-be friends with his arrogance and rampaging selfishness. He doesn't realize he's the villain of his own story. And he can't stop swearing in front of children.
McBride and Hill's new series, Vice Principals, which premieres July 17th on HBO, is a retread of Eastbound & Down Season 1. McBride again plays a narcissistic, endlessly overconfident egomaniac who alienates everyone around him with his rampaging selfishness. Here, that's Neal Gamby, a high school vice principal in North Carolina who disciplines his young charges with a draconian iron fist. And he can't stop swearing in front of children.
The similarities extend beyond the premise to the filthy dialogue itself. Like Eastbound & Down, Vice Principals is virtuosic in its vulgarity. The show is never funnier than when characters are hurling insults at each other (which is pretty much constantly), and sometimes the plot will stop entirely, just to let McBride and his costar/onscreen nemesis Walton Goggins verbally abuse each other. Nothing they say is printable here, but it's all horribly, profanely hilarious. Vice Principals is the kind of show that makes you worry that you're a bad person for laughing.
McBride and Goggins play rival vice principals at North Jackson High School. Each thinks he should be made principal when the current principal (Bill Murray, in a brief cameo) retires, and is willing to do whatever it takes to destroy the other and secure the promotion for himself. But the district hires an outsider, Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory), to take over, which infuriates the vice principals. So they team up to take out the interloper. Along the way, there are side plots, as Gamby tries to woo an English teacher (Georgia King) and bond with his daughter (Maya G. Love), who is growing closer to her good-guy stepfather (Shea Whigham), while Goggins' Lee Russell deals with a turbulent home life.
By playing a jerk, McBride is doing what he always does (and is really good at doing). And while he's funny, he's not doing anything revelatory. Goggins, on the other hand, shines in a rare comic role. He's excellent as the true villain of the story: an unscrupulous underminer whose fey, ingratiating exterior hides his sociopathic interior. As usual, Goggins makes a magnificent slimeball.
Ultimately, Vice Principals lacks the element of surprise and degenerate charisma of Kenny Powers that made Eastbound & Down so memorable. It's more of a trifle compared to its predecessor's character study. And it does evoke the sinking suspicion that McBride and Hill really may be one-trick ponies. But for now, that trick is still funny enough that it's not a problem.
Vice Principals premieres Sunday, July 17th at 10:30/9:30c on HBO.