Since the first time I saw The Foot Fist Way, I have been a fan of the work of Jody Hill and Danny McBride. They have a number of other regular collaborators who are part of the wonderful work they”ve created together so far, and you can”t talk about them without also talking about Ben Best or Shawn Harwell or John Carcieri or David Gordon Green or Tim Orr or Joseph Stephens, because they”re all part of what I love about Observe and Report and Eastbound & Down and now Vice Principals.
I”ll have more to say about this season once it comes to a close next week, but today, I am struck anew by why I have such a strong reaction to the films that Jody Hill has directed, and I think I finally have a handle on it. I often find myself having a strong emotional reaction to something without being able to fully articulate why, which is one of the reasons criticism mattered to me as a film fan in the first place. It”s an attempt to explain how we engage with art, to put a name on those things that we react to even if we don”t fully know we”re doing it.
A few weeks back, there was an episode involving motorcycles and missing books called “The Foundation Of Learning,” and I must have watched it four times in the week after it aired. I ended up writing to Jody directly. In part, I wrote:
What I love about your work is that you have devoted a career to studying the way people either do or don't get a win in life. You know that there are no permanent versions of either, so your work drills down on the small wins and the small losses. Moments of victory or moments of humiliation, and that fine line between them. The ending of this week's episode is maybe the best example of that I've seen you pull off so far. Gamby loses, but then Gamby wins. And Lee savors his win before you hand him a brutal loss. For Belinda, that loss becomes a win in an upsetting way, while for Amanda, her loss might well become a really unexpected win. It's gorgeous writing, gorgeous direction, and the cast is so good together.
I”m particularly interested in the way his work examines what we consider a win or a loss, and how fleeting those feelings can be. That”s what made Eastbound & Down so consistently absorbing. Watching Kenny Powers constantly lose the things he thought he wanted in favor of the things he actually needed, and watching the slow dawning of his awareness of just how fleeting every victory was, and how hard-won they could be, was no less than watching someone slowly but surely develop a soul. I was discussing Vice Principals with some friends lately, and one guy mentioned how he can”t watch these shows because he thinks every character is an asshole, and to me, that misses the point.
Look at Neal Gamby, the character played by Danny McBride in Vice Principals. He”s certainly insecure and full of bluster, and he”s willing to cross some pretty profound lines in his effort to destroy Dr. Belinda Brown, played so brilliantly by Kimberly Hebert Gregory. But Gamby is also a guy whose insecurity is hard-earned. After all, his wife Gale (Busy Philipps) left him and took their daughter Janelle (Maya G. Love), and Neal feels himself getting squeezed out of his daughter”s life, no matter what he does. All he has is whatever authority he”s earned at work, and that is threatened by Dr. Brown”s arrival. He knows people don”t like him, and it makes him more defensive, more closed off.
Even more fascinating to me this year has been the arc they charted out for Lee Russell, played by Walton Goggins. Lee is much more overtly sinister than Neal. He keeps complex dossiers on everyone in the school so he can destroy them if he has to. Or wants to. Or just feels like it in passing. When he and Neal team up at first, he seems to be the far stronger of the two of them, but little by little, Lee has been revealed to be terrified and fragile in ways that are heartbreaking. He has no power in his own house, and feels constantly emasculated, and his attempts at winning power are more pathetic than evil.
What they”ve done beautifully over the course of the show is reveal what everyone on the show wants, and just how hard it is for any of them to get there. Belinda Brown may have seemed strong when she showed up, but she”s revealed the cracks in her humanity with each passing week. Her relationship with her estranged husband (Brian Tyree Henry) and her sons Mario (Deshawn Rivers) and Luke (RJ Cyler) is incredibly difficult, and she”s fragile when it comes to them. She is fiercely devoted to her job, to a fault, and the same confidence and determination that have made her successful can easily curdle to become arrogance and blindness, something that Lee has exploited.