In a 2014 Esquire interview, film director Steven Soderbergh forwarded what was quickly dubbed The One-Asshole Theory. “The analogy that I use is you throw a party with 40 people you’ve selected. Handpicked. It’s gonna be a great party,” he explained. “It takes one asshole to ruin the whole thing. That’s it. One. The problem with the world is one asshole comes up with a really bad idea and now we’re all taking our shoes off at the airport.”
Soderbergh talked about this in the context of his decision to leave the movie business. But he wound up describing the whole world as it would exist just two years later. Only now the stakes are much higher than simply a ruined party or an inconvenience at the airport. We currently stand on the precipice of a single asshole assuming control of the free world. What can explain this calamity?
Would you call me crazy if I said HBO’s new series Vice Principals?
The latest exercise in existential broad comedy from Eastbound & Down‘s Jody Hill and Danny McBride, Vice Principals concerns a three-way power struggle between rival administrators, Neal Gamby (McBride) and Lee Russell (Justified‘s Walton Goggins), and the school’s new principal, Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hébert Gregory). On the surface, Vice Principals resembles the man-children-run-amok absurdism of Step Brothers, with McBride and Goggins playing off each other like it’s the Olympics of guys who say “motherf*cker” more spectacularly than other humans.
But as I watched the series’ (very funny) first five episodes, I began to see it as an allegory for the U.S.’s current political condition — here are two deeply insecure and resentful men who feel entitled to power but are denied it. The response is predictable: They lash out violently against the (more qualified) “bitch” who stands in their way. Vice Principals shows the ridiculousness of that sort of thinking without soft-selling how frightening or destructive it can be. (As good as the pilot is, the second episode is truly insane in this regard.)
I’m not suggesting that Hill and McBride had any of this in mind when they created Vice Principals. The half-hour comedy — conceived as a limited-run 18-episode series split across two seasons — was written in its entirety in 2014 and filmed the following year. Instead, it appears that the culture has aligned, with terrifying precision, to the central obsession of Hill and McBride’s work that began with Hill’s 2006 directorial debut, The Foot Fist Way, and was refined in 2009’s brilliant Observe and Report, which subbed Seth Rogen for McBride. Those films established Hill as cinema’s foremost anthropologist of the asshole — his protagonists tend to be delusional white men who are childishly preoccupied with traditional masculinity, resulting in a kind of macho cosplay for the impotent and diminished. While Observe and Report plays that hypocrisy for laughs, it’s also a disturbingly authentic portrayal of the emotionally unstable man-child archetype.
Perhaps it was inevitable then that Observe and Report alienated many Rogen fans — those expecting a slightly upscale Paul Blart: Mall Cop were instead served Mel Brooks’ Taxi Driver. Hill hasn’t directed a movie since.
Fortunately, Hill found a footing in television with McBride on Eastbound & Down, which premiered just two months before Observe and Report came and went from theaters. Though not as dark as Observe and Report, Eastbound & Down nonetheless explores the mindset of a myopic, incompetent jerk-off who rationalizes his place in the world by making himself the aggrieved hero of his own narrative. In Kenny Powers, Hill and McBride invented not just the ur-asshole of modern times, they also unwittingly profiled the type of person who tweets “All Lives Matter” and trashes the Ghostbusters reboot in website comments and social media based on the trailers.
Here’s another interesting (though unintended) bit of topical subtext from the Vice Principals pilot: The story’s central power struggle is set off by the retirement of the school’s beloved principal, played by none other than the overly idealized hero of online knuckleheads everywhere, Bill Murray. While revered by Gamby and Russell, it’s clear that Murray’s character can’t wait to get away from these squabbling idiots, who mutter empty tough-guy talk at each other (i.e. “I’m gonna take my dick and slap it across your face”) like Redditors in a flame war.
Armed once again with doofy facial hair and an ample gut, McBride continues to mine fresh beats and surprising soul from what might have otherwise been a too-familiar character coming off of Eastbound. Gamby is a law-and-order tempest in a teapot, lashing out at students and teachers because it’s the only human contact he’s afforded in an otherwise crushingly lonely existence. He’s the epitome of the most dangerous person in America: the angry white male loner. (“You’re not gonna kill everybody, right?” an African-American co-worker asks Gamby at one point.)
He might be a bad guy, but unlike Kenny Powers, Gamby has a glimmer of self-awareness that somewhat redeems him. “Nobody likes me,” he weeps in his La-Z-Boy at the end of a long day, a sad little man humiliated in front of his daughter and his ex-wife’s good-guy husband, Ray Liptrapp (the always reliable Shea Whigham).
On Eastbound & Down, Kenny was humanized by introducing antagonists (played by Will Ferrell and Ken Marino, among others) who were even worse than he was. This continues on Vice Principals in the form of Lee, a mincing, sociopathic peacock played with maximum comedic malevolence by the fantastic Walton Goggins. Throughout a career distinguished by playing despicable people on The Shield, Justified, Django Unchained, and The Hateful Eight, Goggins has demonstrated an innate ability to radiate awesomeness at all times. Even when you’re supposed to hate him, you still want to have a beer with him. Incredibly, this also applies to Lee, no matter the egregious accoutrements of un-awesomeness (bowtie, red pants, frosted tips) that have been written into the character.
Perhaps spending time with fictional assholes doesn’t seem all that enticing given how inescapable the genuine article seems at the moment, but Vice Principals will help you understand these poor souls. “When the time is right, I’m going to stab that bitch in her big, fat back,” Lee seethes in the pilot, which seems shocking only if you’re unaware of how Hilary Clinton is discussed down at the Trump rally. But as these characters scream, comically rich weakness rages beneath all the noise.