The Zeitgeist
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The Zeitgeist

‘Vice Principals’ Is Hilarious, Tragic, and Surprisingly Insightful

At first glance, Danny McBride and Jody Hill’s HBO series may look crude and elementary, but it lives up to it’s high school setting by teaching you something.

(Image via: The DePaulia)

In the second-ever episode of Vice Principals, two vice principals of the fictional North Jackson High School, Neal Gamby (Danny McBride) and Lee Russell (Walton Goggins), go to their new boss’ house and burn it to the ground. It’s one of those things that you doubt will happen, purely because something that jarring rarely ever happens on-screen, but then it does, and that’s when I realized Vice Principals meant business.

Burning down somebody’s house is just one of the many horrible things Neal and Lee do to try to become Principal, and in the times we’re in, the thought of a show centered around two angry white men may seem like a turn-off, but the reverse is true: this is the perfect time to watch a show about angry white men, and Vice Principals is that show, because it’s not just white men throwing a fit, but a deep character study of how their anger came to be.

What makes Vice Principals as good as it is, besides the LOL moments, is how it humanizes Lee and Neal. These men are by no means protagonists, but there’s an argument to be made for humanizing evil. Some may argue that it normalizes it, but “if the long-term goal is to understand past evil and prevent future evil, it’s entirely counterproductive to claim that attempts to understand the inner workings of evil normalize or excuse it.”

At no point do Neal or Lee explicitly say why they want the Principal job. Neither of them seem particularly enthusiastic about Education, so we’re left to deduce why they’re so dead-set on getting the job. What’s particularly interesting, then, is the brief hiatuses when getting the job suddenly becomes less important. Those times, not-so-coincidentally, are when their personal lives are going well: when Neal successfully woos Ms. Snodgrass and when Lee turns things around with his wife, Christine.

The timing makes it clear: these men want that job so badly because they want the power and the control that comes with power, the control over others, but more importantly, the control over their own lives. It’s not a coincidence that both Neal and Lee are less angry and care less about getting the job when their love lives are going well, when they feel masculine.

While most of the first season saw Lee do a bunch of evil things and Neal be his reluctant accomplice, the second season spent almost an equal amount of time humanizing Lee. Lee is a bad person, but watching his sisters emasculate him, watching his wife leave him just after things started looking good, felt tragic. Granted, Lee was at least partially responsible for both of those things, but with that context, it starts to make a lot more sense why he so badly wants the Principal job. Sometimes you just need a win.

Neal is not as bad of a person, mainly because he’s not as fucked up, psychologically, and because of that we see that his desire to be Principal is less complex: he just wants to be respected and liked at school, possibly as a result of childhood bullying. When he gets it, like when he got invited to pay-day drinks, he cares noticeably less about the Principal job. He thinks getting the Principal job will result in people respecting him, but if they like him already, not being Principal isn’t that big of a deal.

By the end, both get what they want. Neal is a Principal and gets the girl, Lee gets to boss people around and not feel horrible, and they have a true friendship with one another. The horror of how evil they once were, and how they made it past that, bonds them forever like two people who endured a tragedy together.

Vice Principals begins with Neal and Lee, two drastically different men who don’t like each other, ignoring their better judgment, agreeing to team-up to take down Belinda Brown, the woman who got the Principal job they both believed was theirs. By the end, they’re saying “I love you” to each other and smiling at each other from across a food court. Vice Principals is about their odd friendship and their journey as people. They did a lot of evil shit together. They had fun. They know it was wrong. They’re learning to be better.

Stray Thoughts

  1. Ms. Abbott might be the most tragic character I’ve ever seen.
  2. That Neal vs. Lee brawl was legendary.
  3. Long live Mi-Cha.

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