Misbehaving vice-principals

Danny McBride (left) and Walton Goggins star in Vice Principals.
Danny McBride (left) and Walton Goggins star in Vice Principals.PHOTO: HBO ASIA

In a new HBO dark comedy, two high-school vice-principals scheme to get the top post

Ever wonder what goes on in the staff room of a school?

Vice Principals, a dark comedy that debuts today on HBO (10.30am and 10.30pm, StarHub TV Channel 601), follows two scheming vice-principals as they compete with each other for the top job at an American high school.

When the position is given to a highly qualified African-American woman instead, the two join forces to undermine her - a petty campaign that creator Danny McBride says reflects "the angry, marginalised white man" in America who believes he is entitled to certain things.

McBride, who plays vice-principal Neal Gamby, created the series with Jody Hill, his collaborator on Eastbound & Down (2009 to 2013), a cult comedy series about a similarly disgruntled physical education teacher.

The star, who also appeared in the 2008 comedy films Tropic Thunder and Pineapple Express, based these stories on his own brief stint working as a substitute teacher after college.

These guys are not just making a comedy, they're making a drama. Whenever you can participate in a character that leaves you very uncomfortable or in a place where you're not sure whether to laugh or not laugh, that is the sweet spot for me.

ACTOR WALTON GOGGINS

"It was a peek into a new world," he tells The Straits Times in Los Angeles. "What these teachers were dealing with or going through was totally unknown to the students and when you're in the teachers' lounge, you start to realise what different stories were happening under the same roof."

Walton Goggins, the Emmy-nominated star of TV drama Justified (2010 to 2015) and last year's Oscar-winning Western The Hateful Eight, plays the other vice-principal, Lee Russell.

As Russell and Gamby egg each other on, their war against principal Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) starts to get out of hand.

Goggins, 44, says: "It's like they found themselves in a mixed drink that happened to explode. They just set each other off - and it's so much fun, man."

Much of the comedy, which recalls the 1999 Reese Witherspoon movie Election, about a teacher trying to stop a student from being elected as student-body president, stems from the fact that this is not how school administrators are supposed to behave.

"The irony is that these are the guys in charge of making sure people don't act like that, these are the guys who deal with discipline and bad kids. But they both turn into stupid teenagers," says McBride, who has a four-year-old son with wife Gia Ruiz, a former production assistant.

He adds that the show, a limited series that will end after two seasons of nine episodes each, will take the pair on an unexpected journey.

"Where it goes by the end of this thing is such a strange, dark, dramatic and weird story, I don't think anyone would be able to guess where this is headed."

The series will also explore what happens when men such as these feel powerless - Gamby because he is divorced and his daughter now has a cool new stepfather in her life, and Russell because he is not the main breadwinner at home and is being bullied by a neighbour.

McBride says: "I think Gamby subscribed to an idea of masculinity that was popular when he was a boy and he's followed the rules of what he thinks it is to be a man, but none of those things have panned out because that's not the way the world works.

"So when he finally realises, 'I didn't get the family I thought I'd have and I don't have the job I want', this is the breaking point. And both men think the principal job would somehow fill the other holes in their lives."

The dark humour that flows from this situation might make viewers a little uncomfortable, but that is the point, argues Goggins.

"These guys are not just making a comedy, they're making a drama. Whenever you can participate in a character that leaves you very uncomfortable or in a place where you're not sure whether to laugh or not laugh, that is the sweet spot for me," says the actor, who has a five-year-old son with film-maker wife Nadia Conners.

Another source of awkward comedy might be the racially charged and sexist comments the vice-principals sometimes hurl at principal Brown and others.

"But it really has nothing to do with race or gender," McBride says. "It has to do with the idea that Gamby and Russell thought they deserved that job and they're willing to compromise on what's right to get what they think they deserve."

The good thing is that Hollywood and audiences appear far more receptive to flawed protagonists these days. This is according to Hill, who, with McBride, also created Kenny Powers - the angry, man-child antihero of Eastbound & Down.

"When we started with some of the stuff we were doing, people were, like, 'They'll never let you do that.' We heard that all the time. And now it isn't a problem."

Now, he observes, having your protagonist behave badly can be an asset.

"Look at all the 'Bad' movies - Bad Santa was awesome, then you have Bad Teacher, Bad Grandpa - it's like anything 'bad' now is cool," says Hill, 39.

Vice Principals is hoping to do more than just make people laugh, though.

Executive producer David Gordon Green, 41, echoes the idea that it is really a dig at "the entitlement of the white American male - and I think it'll be fun for the audience to see that and get challenged".

"So it's something that could very easily be dismissed as vulgar comedy, but those who give it a chance to live and breathe can understand that there are layers to it that go way beyond that."

  • Vice Principals is on HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601) on Monday at 10.30am, with a repeat telecast at 10.30pm. The show will also be available on HBO On Demand (StarHub TV Channel 602/StarHub GO).
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 18, 2016, with the headline 'Misbehaving vice-principals'. Print Edition | Subscribe