You expect a certain amount of chaos when Jody Hill or Danny McBride are involved in a show. Eastbound & Down spent four years shocking viewers with moments that were still perfectly in keeping with its world and characters. Hill’s movie Observe and Report (with Seth Rogen in a role that could have easily been played by McBride) might be the darkest and most daring major studio comedy of the last decade or so. Vice Principals, their new HBO sitcom, fully embraces that chaos as it depicts the thoughtless rage and resentment that has steadily risen within a certain segment of white men over the years, and even though last night’s episode “A Trusty Steed’ was only the show’s second, it’s already hit a more frenzied peak than perhaps anything the two have ever done before. That chaos can be incredibly uncomfortable to watch, even as it makes us laugh, and last night might be the most uncomfortable sitcom episode I’ve ever seen. Here are the five main reasons why.
It’s already a little weird when Lee Russell (Walton Goggins) convinces his fellow vice principal Neal Gamby (McBride) to go dig through the trash of Dr. Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory), the new principal they’re conspiring against. It becomes hard to watch when it escalates from simple trespassing and dumpster diving to breaking and entering. When Russell finally pulls the cork out and let his anger flow violently out of him, encouraging Gamby to join in on destroying Brown’s furniture mementos, it becomes a classic Hill moment that combines rage, violence, tragedy and comedy into one unforgettable scene. It also confirms that, despite his prissy exterior, Russell is a far more unhinged and dangerous man than Gamby. Especially when he pulls out his lighter…
Smashing everything in one room is a shockingly immediate and unbelievable escalation of their plot against Dr. Brown. This is the first time we see Russell and Gamby really work together to undermine her, and already they’re breaking her shit. So when Russell lights the curtains on fire, quickly consuming the entire house, you might wonder where the show can go from here. They literally burn her house down. Two white men, angry at their black female boss, burn her house down, in South Carolina, somewhere near Charleston. The racial aspect goes unaddressed within the episode itself, but we’re clearly supposed to recognize it, and it only adds to the discomfort and the chaos. It makes us wonder if Gamby’s first episode description of in-school suspension like it’s HBO’s Oz, with weaker kids having to worry about being “turned out”, is foreshadowing an inevitable transformation into a prison show after Gamby and Russell are convicted of arson.
Dr. Brown isn’t dumb. She knows Gamby and Russell might not be trustworthy. So she hires a guy who looks like the villain in any ‘80s action flick to follow them around and evaluate their performance. He’s a scuzzy Euro-trash looking guy with the perfect name of Blythe Sason, and his quiet, lurking visage adds an element of tension to much of the episode. His final report might inexplicably endorse both Russell and Gamby as strongly as possible, but that doesn’t make his presence any less uncomfortable throughout the episode.
Hill and McBride’s work feels too dark and chaotic to fully label as “cringe comedy”, but the scene where Gamby is forced to fire the near-retirement office receptionist (with Sason watching on) is the closest Vice Principals has gotten to traditional Office-style awkwardness. If McBride had gotten one of those “new boss” guest spots on The Office those first few weeks after Steve Carell left, it probably would’ve felt like this scene. It does serve an important second purpose, though: it reinforces that Gamby is not as sociopathic as Kenny Powers, that, despite his pettiness and vindictiveness, he does have some decency within him. He clearly is not happy about firing Mrs. Libby, and even though he eventually seems to embrace it, that’s just a show to convince Sason that he’s capable of carrying out Dr. Brown’s orders, no matter how much he might disagree with them. Gamby is being set up to be the more reasonable and human of the show’s two lead characters, and despite how uncomfortable this scene was, it’s crucial to establishing that distinction.
There was speculation that Russell was supposed to be gay because of how effeminately Goggins plays him. The character might still be gay, but we now know he’s married to a woman, and lives with a loud Asian mother-in-law who doesn’t speak English and skirts pretty close to being a stereotype. Russell’s obsession with power at school makes more sense now that we’ve seen his home life, where he very clearly does not call the shots, but it’s a little uncomfortable to see the show saddling him with a premise and character as cartoonish as the mother-in-law seems to be. If Russell hadn’t been amazingly hostile in his interaction with her, it’d almost seem like the show was trying to make us sympathize with a guy who otherwise seems like an absolute sociopath. That would perhaps be a bad creative decision—if the show wants to soften one of the two monsters at its core, it should stick to humanizing Gamby, and let Russell (and Goggins) act as irredeemably as possible.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin