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.
That you don’t tell the audience how to feel is part of what makes Vice Principals such an interesting show. But it’s also risky. It’s easy for people to take a show like this the wrong way. How do you feel about how Vice Principals has been received?
Man, you know, it’s like everything we’ve every done, Jody and I together. It’s never been anything that has been a critics’ darling or even something that’s been accepted by the masses. I think the first film Jody and I made together, The Foot Fist Way, we made that movie for like $70,000, and when Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s company bought it, Paramount before they released it decided to test screen the movie and it scored like a 36. It was like the fucking worst score that they had, ever. [Laughs.] I think we’re aware that we’re not really making something that’s going to appeal to the sensibilities of everyone, but I think for people who do give it a shot, you can see that there isn’t a malicious intent behind the narrative. It is just telling a story that you really haven’t seen before.
I really do think that what you take from this is really up to what the audience wants to see in this. If you’re instantly turned off by the way these guys act, I think that’s a completely fair assessment of the show. If you’re turned off by them but at the same time you’re curious of where it’s going, that’s fair. It’s just like with a horror movie: Some people watch horror movies because they like to have the shit scared out of them, and other people don’t watch horror movies for that same reason. I think with this sort of dark, cringe comedy sometimes people like watching a train wreck and for other people it’s just too much.
The timing of the show was advantageous in a way, because it’s an election year, and people are talking about Donald Trump, and Vice Principals seemed to me like an allegory for Trump’s America. Now that’s something that you couldn’t have intended, obviously, given when you wrote it, but did you feel that resonance as the episodes started airing?
You know, what’s really crazy is I had to run that writers’ room, and I was in there for a year. When we get into this creative process, I really just tune the fucking whole world out. For 2014, I was just so locked into what we were doing with this show and cracking this, even down to us shooting it all [in 2015], that it really didn’t even come to my attention that this was starting to mirror the times until we were already in post. It was like, “Jesus Christ, this thing is way more relevant than we ever imagined it would be.”
I don’t think it’s a new concept — it’s about how disgusting and brutal people can be when they try to go for a position of power. I think we’re seeing the worst of it in this election year, of how far each candidate’s willing to go to get what they want, and I think that it’s interesting to see that play out in something where the stakes are really so low but these people are going so far to ensure they get victory.
What I liked most about Vice Principals is it felt like a genuinely rebellious show. Right now it’s a great time for TV. People talk about the golden age of TV and there are lots of great TV shows, but even with great TV shows, there’s usually a formula. We all know what “good TV” is supposed to look like, what kind of characters it’s supposed to have, the themes of it, etc. Vice Principals seemed like a conscious attempt to subvert a lot those conventions.
I completely feel that. I feel like there’s so few shows that actually do keep me guessing or keep me surprised. I think in comedy it’s very easy to rest on a formula and not really try to push the audience too far outside of the zone of what they’re comfortable with.
Jody and I obviously both have experiences in features, and what was really disheartening for us in trying to make a good comedy with a studio was that you can see that people will show up for a superhero movie or a big tent-pole and they’ll get $120 million worth of business in one weekend. If a comedy is successful maybe it makes like $20 million. To us it’s just like, “Man, people aren’t showing up for this kind of stuff.”
I think with TV and comedy, it’s a very lucrative playing field right now because you do have the time to develop characters and you have the time to change things. You also have the time to let people make up their own minds. There were definitely critics that did not like this show and maybe thought that we had bad intentions with the creation of this show, but that’s not true. I think anyone who’s watched this can make up their own mind and see that this is a three-dimensional world and these guys aren’t rewarded for this terrible behavior they have. If anything I think this is a tragedy wrapped up as if it were a comedy.
But, again, it’s still a risky strategy. In the second episode of Vice Principals, Neal and Lee burn down Belinda’s house. You really threw down the gauntlet with that episode. I like that episode, but it’s very tough to watch.
It is tough. I feel like out of the stuff Jody and I have done, I think the most fucked up stuff we’ve ever done has been in this show. Anytime we had to do any scene where something bad happened to Belinda, I always hated those fucking days. You just felt it. You just felt like, “Oh, I don’t want to be this guy.” For me the two hardest scenes that we filmed were when she got drunk and she walks out onto the police car. I watch that scene and just my mouth fucking drops every time she does it. It’s so heartbreaking and she’s so incredible in it that it just makes you feel so nuts. And that train track scene, the first time we saw the cut of that, it just made me want to crawl out of my fucking skin.
What is it about this kind of comedy that speaks to you? It would’ve been easier to either make this just a straight-up broad comedy or to make it a drama. Instead you’re doing something that seems much trickier.
I think that that’s exactly what it is — it seems much more difficult. Comedy these days is very, very formulaic. The themes of the modern R-rated comedy are all the same. A lot of it has to do with just stunted development and guys who are afraid of commitment or whatever, any of this bullshit you’ve seen over the last 15, 20 years. For us it’s like, “Let’s present people with a comedy and then let’s not make it a comedy. Let’s do something fucking crazy with it and keep people on their toes and surprise them, that amongst all this chaos and insanity there actually can be revelations about human nature and how we all treat each other and how we function in the world.”