South Carolina

'Vice Principals' Earns Comedy Diploma

HBO's dark high school laugher heads for a raucous series finale Sunday.

HBO's "Vice Principals," originally conceived as a movie, easily could have become the next "Horrible Bosses" with its almost cartoon-like comedy-of-escalation approach.

But fortunately the tale of warring high school administrators got fleshed out into a TV series that grew darker and deeper with every episode.

The show, whose title characters burned and pillaged their way past the point of no return by Episode 2, ends its second and final season Sunday. The finale promises a raucous capper to a program that proved high school never ends.

The premise seemed simple enough: Two rival vice principals at a South Carolina high school team to undermine their new boss after being passed over for the top job.

But unlikely allies Neal Gamby and Lee Russell go far past usual sitcom hijinks to chase away principal Dr. Belinda Brown – publicly humiliating her, coaxing her into an alcoholic relapse and burning down her house.

The show plays with fire, daring us to care about Gamby (Danny McBride). Like McBride's washed-up relief pitched character in his great previous HBO series, "Eastbound & Down," Gamby is a blowhard with delusions of grandeur. There's also a hurt little boy inside the man-child stuck in the past, from dealing with his ex-wife and her new husband to navigating high school more like a teenager than an authority figure. 

Yet in "Vice Principals," conscience lurks closer to the surface with Gamby, who woke up a bit after being shot in the school parking lot by a masked assailant at the end of Season 1.

Series co-creator McBride's maturity as an actor includes ceding much of the stage to Walton Goggins' Russell, a psychopath whose destruction-strewn path to what passes for power at North Jackson High appears rooted in his domination as a child by his two sisters.

The standout, though, is Kimberly Hebert Gregory as Brown – a figure who went quickly from caricature to character. The only disappointing part of Season 2 has been the relative lack of her presence. 

Gregory leads a strong supporting cast that includes Georgia King and Edi Patterson as Gamby’s on-again-off-again teacher girlfriends. For all the over-the-top machination and violence, the most compelling moments of “Vice Principals” play out among the teachers and administrators who regress to teenager-hood – rife with popularity-contest antics coursing through romantic rivalries, emotionally charged friendships and grabs for status. 

Perhaps Gregory’s Brown will return for Sunday's finale – it would be appropriate for a real adult to take charge as the identity of Gamby’s shooter, a mystery that doesn’t seem quite solved, presumably will be revealed (or at least confirmed). One mystery “Vice Principals” won’t wrap as easily: Why is it that while most folks graduate high school, many never leave?

Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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