Vice Principals timeless yet timely

Bad behaviour is always relevant, but the show's themes of racism and sexism uncannily reflect the current political climate of the US too

Vice Principals, starring (from far left) Walton Goggins and Danny McBride, returns for a final season.
Vice Principals, starring (from far left) Walton Goggins and Danny McBride, returns for a final season.PHOTO: HBO

When Vice Principals debuted last year, critics did not know quite what to make of this dark television comedy about two high-school vice-principals viciously sabotaging the principal in order to get her job.

Although the series clearly mocks vice-principals Neal Gamby (Danny McBride) and Lee Russell (Walton Goggins), some viewers were perturbed by the fact that both are white men who express racist and sexist sentiments, while their target, principal Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory), is an African-American woman.

They felt the show revelled a little too much in the men's bad behaviour, but other reviewers praised it for its insight into the racial and gender divides that they believe contributed to the election of United States President Donald Trump.

Although the story does not directly reference national politics, one critic says it "does more to explain Trump's rise than any show on TV", while another claimed it "is secretly a show about Trump voters".

Speaking to reporters in New York last week, McBride, Vice Principals' star and co-creator, acknowledges that the current political climate has given added pungency to these characters. But he makes it clear that the show does not celebrate their despicable antics.

"By portraying something, we're not endorsing it.

"It was the opposite: It's a statement about these guys who are holding on to the last strands of white male entitlement, realising that their position in the world has moved on and that some of these views are what's holding them back," says the 40-year-old, who appeared in the comedy films This Is The End (2013) and Pineapple Express (2008).

He also explains that the series - which returns for a final season today on HBO (10.30am and 10.30pm, StarHub TV Channel 601) - was never intended as a portrayal of the kind of disgruntled white man that may have voted for Mr Trump.

For one thing, he and Jody Hill - who collaborated on another comedy series about an angry white man, Eastbound & Down (2009-2013) - wrote this more than a decade ago.

"We created this show as a (movie) screenplay in 2006, so when we wrote this, we weren't aware of where the political climate was headed.

"To us, it was a story that was timeless. I don't think the stuff these people are dealing with is so specific to right now - it's specific to the nature of humankind and the inherent evil that can lie within all of us when we think we're entitled to something or that we've been passed over for something."

But he is glad these themes have become more thought-provoking because of the zeitgeist.

"If the work pokes people because of the times, I think it's even more reason why something like this should be made," says McBride, who is married to educator Gia Ruiz and has two children aged five and two.

Co-star Goggins, 45, says "people will interpret (the show) the way they interpret it" and that viewers will sometimes draw parallels with what is happening in the country.

This was the case, he says, with the Quentin Tarantino western he starred in, The Hateful Eight (2015), whose racially charged storyline seemed to echo the discourse surrounding the high-profile shootings of African-Americans in the news at the time.

But with Vice Principals, "these guys wrote this so long ago and it was situationally funny and dark and such a great way to explore two highly dysfunctional people", says the actor, who is married to film-maker Nadia Conners and has a six-year-old son. "It wasn't greenlit because Trump was going to get elected."

McBride adds that viewers are supposed to feel uncomfortable and uncertain about these characters.

"This is intentionally a complicated show. People tried to guess what this was when it started, but it would be impossible to guess what this show is trying to do from where it starts.

"It's intentionally misleading you, presenting characters that you assume are going to be the guys you're going to root for and then as the journey goes on, you start not rooting for them, or you're not really sure what you want to have happen."

One group that has embraced the series are the professionals it depicts: teachers and school administrators.

"I've actually heard from people who work in the school system and they say we did tap into something that is the reality of what they face sometimes - the infighting and power struggles between administrators and teachers, which, ultimately, can dictate a lot of how these people spend their energy when they should be focusing on the classroom."

The frustration and the comedy that results are something everyone can relate to, he adds.

"It's like any workplace - you're there for one thing, but then, all the other stuff is sometimes louder."

•Vice Principals Season 2 airs on HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601) and will also stream on HBO On StarHub Go and HBO On Demand (StarHub TV Channel 602).

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 18, 2017, with the headline 'Vice Principals timeless yet timely'. Subscribe