Even by the insane standards of the HBO comedy’s inaugural season, Sunday’s Vice Principals season finale was, well, very insane. Over the course of nine polarizing episodes, in which co-creators Jody Hill and Danny McBride walked the razor’s edge between pitch-black comedy and disquieting psychological drama, Vice Principals followed the efforts of school administrators Neal Gamby (Danny McBride) and Lee Russell (Walton Goggins) to overthrow their new boss, Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert). Along the way, there were some extremely uncomfortable moments, including an act of arson at Brown’s home and a horrifying night of destruction prompted by a bottle of gin.
And then there was Sunday’s episode, in which [SPOILERS AHEAD] Gamby and Russell finally succeed in getting rid of Brown. Better yet, they’re appointed co-principals of the school. But just when everything appears to have worked out for the show’s protagonists/villains, Gamby is gunned down in the school’s parking lot by a mysterious masked figure, and apparently left for dead.
Vice Principals ended its first season as it began — uneven, erratic, and yet also thrillingly unpredictable and unique. It wasn’t perfect, but Vice Principals was a welcome oddity amid an increasingly conformist television landscape. As the conventions of “Good TV” are codified and reduced to formula — with an established set of clearly defined storytelling perspectives and moral objectives — Vice Principals stubbornly went against the grain, never letting the audience off the hook by telling it how to feel about its deeply flawed characters.
Initially conceived as an 18-episode limited-run series, Vice Principals already has its second and final season in the can. “Everyone could watch it now if HBO would just release it. It’s ready. It’s there for you to see,” McBride told us Monday in a phone interview.
As for what viewers should expect from Vice Principals moving forward, McBride says “we were channeling a lot of John Hughes and ’80s teen comedy in the first season, and I feel like in the second season we start channeling a lot of Brian De Palma.” How’s that for a teaser? McBride also spoke about the show’s critics, subverting the TV comedy formula, and how watching Vice Principals made even him wince.
I’ll start with the most obvious question: Is Neal Gamby dead?
[Laughs.] You will just have to wait and see.
This is a “Who shot J.R.?”-type situation?
[Laughs.] I think it was, yes.
The finale reminded me of Eastbound & Down, in that at the end of each season of that show, there was always something big that would happen that would essentially reboot the series for the next season. Is it safe to say that season two of Vice Principals will have an entirely different flavor?
With making this show — only 18 episodes and breaking it down to these two seasons — I knew that Jody was going to be directing the first season and David Green would be directing the second. So, even though it is one continuous story we customized each season to play to the strengths of what I think is awesome about both of those guys as directors. I think we bended the genre and fucked with some dark stuff in the first season, [and] we’ll continue definitely to do that in the second.
I could be wrong about this, but I felt like there was an allusion to Kill Bill in the finale — I’m referring to the scene where Belinda is walking barefoot away from the train tracks. It made me think that maybe the second season will be about Belinda’s revenge. Am I reading too much into this or am I onto something?
I don’t want to tell you either way. I just want you to think about it and imagine what it will be.
I’m a fan of Jody Hill’s 2009 film, Observe and Report, which has this weird mix of broad comedy and disturbing violence. That mix resurfaced at times in Vice Principals, particularly in the finale. It’s very disorienting, because on one level it’s very silly, but it’s also not conventionally “funny.” In your mind, what is the ideal audience reaction to Vice Principals?
I think a lot of it, it doesn’t even come from a motivation to try to shock people or anything. I just think audiences are so smart these days. I grew up in the ’80s, in the age of VCRs and the video store. Unlike any other generation before us, we’ve grown up watching hundreds of movies and TV shows a year, [and] the average viewer, I think, can guess what’s going to happen in the average story. I think for us it just comes from trying to be unexpected, trying to push the story into a zone where people aren’t going to be able to guess what happens or who they even want to root for.
I think that’s part of the reason why we chose to follow the villains in the story instead of the hero. When you have a show where the two characters that you’re supposed to be rooting for burn down a woman’s house in the second episode, I think it’s fair to say that most people don’t have any clue where the show is going to go from there. That’s part of what the experience of watching this is, that you can see that we’re not really afraid to go into different places. It opens it up to being able to do anything.
You just identified Gamby and Russell as “villains,” but they don’t always come off as bad guys. When you’re writing the script, do you think about the characters in “bad guy” terms, or do you remove those moral judgments?
We like to keep it open so that people can read whatever they want. I don’t think there’s one way to identify with this show. When I came up with the idea for this story, the Hollywood version of it was you would follow Belinda Brown as she tries to battle these two guys that have it out for her. To us it was like, “Well, what if we just followed the assholes who are trying to take her down? What is that story like?” That’s what this is.