The staggering toxicity of Vice Principals
Among more ambitious makers of television and film, it's in fashion for the protagonist to be "an asshole." It's easy to understand why: Freeing characters from innocence and virtue — qualities that too easily buy an audience's love — opens up new storytelling possibilities. But there's also a sense that it's a bigger challenge. It's fighting your duel left-handed, making the job harder just to show how good you are.
By this logic, it's even more adventurous, more daring, to make a show about two assholes.
Enter Vice Principals, HBO's new comedy about — to quote star and creator Danny McBride — "two assholes and their misguided lust for power." The assholes in question are Neal Gamby and Lee Russell (McBride and Walton Goggins), two vice principals vying to be principal until Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hébert Gregory), an accomplished black administrator, is hired instead. To give you a sense of the provocative, er, "hijinks" this series gets up to, the second episode ends with the white men forming an alliance to take the uppity black woman down — by finding her address, breaking into her home, stealing her jewelry, and burning her house down.
Shocked? You wouldn't be if you watched it. And that's the trouble.
There's a rhetoric to Asshole TV, a cousin of the Manchild Movie that's become a sort of genre unto itself. Asshole TV is built from concessions of assholedom that precede the show's real point: Sure, he's an asshole! But… That's the basic structure, and what follows is usually a mini-sermon or insight tucked away inside a genre that pretends it hates them. (Larry David might be this genre's most famous exponent.)
But Asshole TV also understands that the order in which you experience events onscreen shapes your sympathies. First impressions matter, and Vice Principals goes to a lot of trouble to contextualize the events I described above — which amount to racial terrorism — so that they're allowed to be funny.
Comedy loves an underdog, and so Vice Principals begins, quite conventionally, by alerting us to our heroes' shortcomings: We learn that Neal Gamby is petty, sexist, and bigoted. He's disliked by his colleagues and by his students. We then learn — in a set-piece that's basically labeled Mitigating Circumstances in neon lights — that his wife (the wonderful Busy Philipps) has left him. We learn that her new partner is courteous and seems to like him, but that Gamby is incapable of receiving his overtures with any civility. We learn that Gamby is obsessed with power and controlling his daughter's sexuality, but hell, y'all, this all probably stems from how much he's lost.
I've said that the order in which you learn things matters, so here's what you learn first about Dr. Belinda Brown, the black administrator at a South Carolina school whose house our heroes set on fire: She's good at her job. The second thing you learn is that she wants the secretary of the school — an unoffending woman who's been at the school for decades, whose job Gamby tries to save — fired.
Where are your sympathies now, audience?
In a pretty remarkable interview with Daniel D'Addario at Time, creator McBride says what he relishes about Vice Principals is "the ability to be able to tell a story and do something different." Unfortunately, this isn't different. It's old as the hills. It's the story of men who hate female authority figures, of whites who hate black authority figures, of entitled people who hate a world that no longer gives them quite as much. We know that story; we've been living it for some time. Wrap that all up in a package that labels itself as puerility — boyish hijinks — and you have a truly toxic mashup.
Now, McBride promises there's more to Vice Principals; he's called critics of the show's early episodes "lazy" because they haven't yet seen all 18. "We're making something that is divisive," he says, promising that the show is going to places viewers can't even imagine based on the first three or six episodes:
I don't think we have any illusions that we're making something everybody has to like. The only thing I do take offense to is people who think we're doing this in some bull-headed fashion, that we're trying to make some broad comedy and exploiting or endorsing, somehow, ridiculous behavior. [Time]
He's right: Critics are always struggling with the problem of reviewing something before you've been able to see the ending — it's the part of the job I hate most. But there are things you can glean, even without all 18 episodes, from the language a creator uses to describe the events he depicts. Burning someone's house down — destroying all their memories and possessions — is the word for that "ridiculous behavior"? Does that phrase perhaps betray a tendency to minimize the egregious damage these "assholes" inflict?
The trouble with the word "asshole," you see, is that — like "ridiculous" — it conveys the impression of innocuousness.
McBride's interview is worth reading in full for how perfectly it articulates the show's peculiar and determined blindness to the nonwhite and nonmale dimensions of the story it's telling — or the men it's centering. Asked what about this story about white men against a black woman made it worthwhile, McBride had this to say:
Ultimately, I don't see this as a story about race. I don't even see it as a story about sexism. It's a story about power and about how people think power can fix things that are dysfunctional in their own lives. [Time]
Now, it could easily be that the show is about power! I've only seen the first three episodes. But it doesn't matter. What matters is that McBride has seen all 18 — he's speaking with perfect knowledge of where this show is going — and what this statement of his does is decenter every character except for the two protagonists.
To the black woman whose house was burned down, this certainly is a story about race. To the women Gamby and Russell attack (or harass), it certainly is a story about sexism. Only if you're centering the perspectives and honoring the concerns of the two vicious assholes in question to the exclusion of everyone else can you say it's just a story about power. Only then can you insist that these other categories are irrelevant.
On the subject of race, McBride seems puzzlingly resistant — to all appearances denying that certain lines he himself wrote and delivered exist. Neal Gamby's first remark about Dr. Belinda Brown's hire, for instance, is "I'm pretty affirmative how she got in." Here's McBride: "These guys' hate for her has nothing to do with her skin."
Pressing the point, he says this: "Not that this has anything to do with race, but if you did want to bring it down to that: The two biggest assholes in this thing are white guys."
And that's just the trouble, isn't it? The asshole — a figure who once evoked Larry David's petty but amusing enforcement of social mores in Curb Your Enthusiasm — has expanded, in Vice Principals, to include behaviors like arson, theft, sexual harassment, homophobia, and racism. White crime isn't crime at all; it's "ridiculous behavior." Hey, the show says, maybe you should try to understand the asshole? Maybe you should think about where he's coming from? Here's McBride, making that point so I don't have to:
There should be a little more understanding in this world and [we shouldn't be] so quick to jump to highlighting our differences. That's what the show's about. The fact that these characters throw around casual racism doesn't mean that they're the antichrist. It just means that they don't have a point of view that necessarily aligns with everyone's point of view. That's not a reason to suddenly completely turn off to anything that's important to them. [Time]
There it is again: Breaking into and burning a black woman's house down is "casual racism" and c'mon, it doesn't make these guys the antichrist. They just have a different point of view! "This country used to be a country filled with lots of different views," McBride says, and you can practically hear him comically shaking his head, thinking of America's better, more tolerant past. "That was what was cool about this country."
It's a shame, because McBride clearly thinks he's up to something new and refreshingly apolitical: "[I]f your views don't push a kind of agenda, then you're an outsider or you're somehow subversive and trying to be hurtful," he says, bemoaning critics' tendency to politicize his show.
But Vice Principals IS pushing a kind of agenda. Vice Principals is the story of America's most dominant and dangerous demographic framing itself as the underdog and raging against its perceived enemies. And — for all that McBride insists that you can't control audience response — one thing we've certainly learned from a decade of antihero shows and reality TV is that if you follow someone with a camera for long enough, viewers will align with that person's perspective and come to like them no matter what they do. If they're making us laugh, we like 'em even more! That's comedy's secret power.
So even if Vice Principals ends up punishing the assholes hard, it won't really matter. A comedy's heart is its laughs. Dr. Belinda Brown and Neal Gamby could end up best friends. The two dudes could learn they aren't the underdogs they think they are. They could go to jail. It doesn't matter because resolutions are almost never funny.
Whether it intends to or not (it likely doesn't), Vice Principals whitewashes racially motivated arson and invites us to think of it as "divisive" comedy. If Donald Trump has made the unsayable sayable, Vice Principals is making the unlaughable laughable.