On September 17th, the second season of HBO’s Vice Principals will kick into gear. If you missed the first season, you’re in luck: you’ve got just enough time to catch up, and more than that, you’ve got the whole season to burn through at once. Very few shows make a compelling case for binge-watching beyond being able to stay on top of the pop culture cycle, but Vice Principals is a notable exception to the rule.
The show stars Danny McBride and Walton Goggins as Neal Gamby and Lee Russell, high school vice principals jockeying for the position of principal. At first glance, there’s not that much to it. Early criticism of the show said as much, highlighting the seemingly regressive plot. The first hour or so of the show seems to put it in the unfortunately archaic lane of showcasing two underqualified white men seeking to undermine a woman—specifically a woman of color—for the sake of their own pride. The pilot alone ends with them putting aside their differences in order to work together against her, with the handshake between them framed as a triumphant gesture. But the further along the show goes, the more it becomes evident that it’s subverting the very tropes that it seems to be engaging in. The clearest sign of this is how much weight is given to the principal Gamby and Russell are trying to get rid of: as Belinda Brown, Kimberly Hebert Gregory is inarguably the true hero of the piece. Unlike Gamby and Russell, who are continually facing moral dilemmas that they either choose to ignore or take the low road on, there’s next to no reason to root against Brown. She’s a good person, and besides that, she’s a good principal.
The reason why the show is stronger as a whole is evident when taking into account the comments of its creators. Danny McBride and Jody Hill originally conceived of Vice Principals as a movie, and its expansion into a TV series still adheres to a more finite structure than many of its peers. It’s two—and only two—seasons long, and was shot all at once instead of from season to season. It makes sense, as such, that the overall thesis driving the show would be strengthened by watching it all at once instead of week to week.
That isn’t to say that the show won’t hold up when taken episode to episode. The stronger episodes can definitely stand on their own—the fifth episode, “Circles,” which focuses on a break-up and make-up between Gamby and Russell, is a notable standout—but when separated from the larger arc of the series, they can still come off as a little outdated. Brown still seems like an obstacle for the two vice principals who are set up as our ostensible protagonists (the show is called Vice Principals, after all), rather than the third lead that she really is. Gamby and Russell’s insanity is infectious, but the bitterness of it is easier to swallow from episode to episode. Taken all at once, it’s impossible to swallow at all. We’re watching villains more than we are watching antiheroes, and the show’s success in subverting its own image depends on the audience realizing that.
In accordance, the style of comedy develops over the course of the season as well. The season begins with pettier jokes—the sequence of Gamby and Russell flipping each other off behind the exiting principal’s (Bill Murray, in one of the show’s many incredible cameos and guest stars) back as they raise the flag outside the school—and gradually peels back to reveal a much darker show at play, similar to Eastbound and Down’s deconstruction of Kenny Powers and the idea of American (redneck) masculinity. It’s easier to take given that at least one of the vice principals isn’t completely unrepentant about the events that are unfolding. Part of the show’s emotional heart is Gamby’s slow realization, as he gets to know Belinda, that they’re doing something reprehensible, and that guilt only makes the conflagration worse.
The first season of Vice Principals was one of the most remarkable things to come out of 2016, but it seems as though the show has largely been overlooked. The reasoning is evident enough: on a surface level, it looks like we’ve seen this show before. Even the marketing suggests as much, featuring Gamby and Russell, with Belinda nowhere in sight. But Danny McBride and Jody Hill (as well as executive producer David Gordon Green, who takes on directing duty in the second season) have a long history of sneaking cutting social commentary by in the guise of crass comedy, and Vice Principals is even sharper than their earlier work. It remains to be seen whether or not the second season will be able to keep it up, as the season one finale threw much of the show’s narrative (and emotional) weight behind Gamby. But finding out over the course of the season is part of the fun, and for those who aren’t caught up on the story thus far, it’s the perfect time to do just that.
Karen Han is a writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, New York Magazine and VICE, and she can be found on Twitter.