In the "must watch" (Entertainment Weekly) new comedy series Vice Principals, the longtime principal of a suburban high school steps down, leading ambitious vice principals Neal Gamby (Danny McBride) and Lee Russell (Walton Goggins) to both set their sights on the vacated top spot. But when new rival Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hébert Gregory) enters the picture, these bitter antagonists must form an unholy alliance to bring down the outsider by any means necessary. The series also features Georgia King, Busy Phillips, Shea Whigham, Sheaun McKinney and guest stars Bill Murray and Susan Park.
CinemaScore is a rating system that checks a film's final product against the movie it was marketed as. For example, if applied to 'The Notebook,' it would compare the tear-jerking trailer against the movie itself for tear-jerkiness. If HBO's new comedy 'Vice Principals' (the latest from Danny McBride and the 'Eastbound & Down' crew) went through a CinemaScore test, it likely wouldn't get high marks – but not because it isn't hilarious. It would get a low grade because it takes its characters down a somewhat serious road, which isn't at all a bad thing, but it also isn't alluded to in the marketing. Although that aspect doesn't come across in the adverts, it's a nice addition to this vulgar and side-splitting series.
Trailers make 'Vice Principals' out to be a two-lead "frenemy" series starring McBride and Walton Goggins (TV's 'Justified' and Quentin Tarantino's 'The Hateful Eight') – but that's also a little misleading. Make no mistake; while Goggins is a major player, this is the Danny McBride show.
The duo plays a pair of power-hungry vice principals in a South Carolina high school. McBride plays Neal Gamby, VP of discipline. Goggins plays Lee Russell, VP of curriculum. Bill Murray cameos in the first episode as their superior, the principal who's taking early retirement because of his wife's worsening health. Chomping at the bit for the promotion, Gamby and Russell won't hesitate to throw one another under the proverbial school bus. The first episode is dedicated to watching the warring foul-mouth educators sabotage one another. The comedy that comes about caused the 12-year-old within me to awaken and laugh out loud at their shenanigans and constant strings of potty-mouth insults.
The episode closes with a revelation that completely changes the dynamic established in the first episode. Instead of watching Gamby and Russell duke it out for each of the nine episodes that make up the first season, the new principal is named in the pilot episode – and neither Gamby nor Russell made the cut. Instead, we're introduced to Dr. Belinda Brown (played by little-known gem Kimberly Hebert Gregory), a well-respected single-mother administrator who relocated across the country for the position. Gamby and Russell quickly change tunes and, despite their differences, team up to get this newcomer fired. And that is the path that 'Vice Principals' heads down.
As any series does, 'Vice Principals' carries subplots. Most episodes place the characters in specific scenarios that come to mind when you think back on high school. There's a field trip episode, a "rival week" episode, et cetera – but while those subplots are almost purely superficial, there are also some great character-building subplots. We see inside the personal lives of the series ensemble, find where their ambitions comes from, and actually connect with them. The nice thing is that this character depth isn't just limited to Gamby and Russell. We dive into Dr. Brown's character and understand where she's coming from. We also get to know Ms. Amanda Snodgrass (Georgia King, 'Austenland'), the uppity teacher that Gamby has a crush on. Knowing these characters intimately creates an awesome character conundrum for the viewing audience. It's possible for you to love and hate each character. You may want to see Gamby and Russell succeed in destroying Dr. Brown's career, but at the same time, you want to see her succeed. The table is constantly turning; many times it happens on several occasions in a single episode. It keeps you on your toes and creates a conflict that extends beyond the screen and into yourself.
There's a surprisingly strong creative quality to 'Vice Principals,' but unless you're looking for it, you likely won't notice it. If you're looking solely for a crude comedy series, you'll probably miss the character depth. You won't recognize the subtly strong performances buried within the small, quiet moments. You many not catch the gorgeous and powerful cinematography featured in the downtime. And you might even overlook the excellent scoring, which frequently changes in styles ranging from percussion-based drumlines to nostalgic '80s-esque synth-fueled melodies.
Love 'em or hate 'em, the story is carried by the characters, each of which is realized by the strong actors who play them. The chemisty between the four principal character is what really makes them enjoyable. Alongside one another, McBride and Goggins play the most likeable pair of smug dicks. Hebert Gregory plays off them perfectly. And McBride even plays a solid romantic male in the would-be relationship with King's character. Their ensemble is unforgettable.
When McBride and company pitched the series idea to HBO, they signed on to shoot one full two-season series. Both seasons were shot back-to-back. Instead of watching a network run a good series into the ground, we can rest assured knowing that 'Vice Principals' will go out on its own terms with its yet-to-air second season long before it's worn down and dried up.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
HBO has placed all nine episodes of the first season of 'Vice Principals' on two Region A BD-50 discs. Both discs and an iTunes/Ultraviolet redemption code are housed in a two-disc blue Elite keepcase. First pressings come with a glossy slip cover. Nothing plays before the main menu aside from an unskippable FBI warning and a commentary disclaimer.
'Vice Principals' hits Blu-ray with a great visual transfer. For the most part, the imagery is crystal clear and full of sharp detail. The only exceptions come from GoPro-ish footage captured from sources like helmet-mounted cameras. Aside from those brief home video-ish shots, which typically look flat and lack dimension, the video is fantastic.
Shot digitally, the crispness allows for fine details to be wildly visible. Not only are the expected features apparent – stubbles, facial pores, rogue hairs – but the less-obvious elements are too. Little things like fabric textures/patterns and gnats consistently impress.
The series mostly features a palette of primary colors. They appear with a natural vibrancy and richness. Fleshtones are natural, but the scheme is a little warmed than expected. Set in South Carolina, wooded areas and vegetation are boldly green. Contrast is consistent and lifelike. Black levels are strong.
Although a marquis audio track is a lossless 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio one, it's a little underwhelming for what we've become accustomed to. Had it been released five years ago, it would have been impressive – but now it's just a tab under par.
High Schools are bustling locations with concentrated amounts of the loudest things known to man: teenagers. You'd think that 'Vice Principals' would have plenty of moments to shine with dynamic and well-placed sound, but instead it plays out more like a talkie drama. Only a few of the locations make use of the space like it should, the most prominent being the motocross track. In those instances, various sounds seamlessly pass from one channel to the other. Unfortunately, mixing of that caliper isn't ongoing.
Music is the aspect of the sound mix that consistently takes advantage of the space. The scoring bounces around in style, but no matter the style, it always fills the space. In turn, the various styles suitably match their scenes and add to the tension and emotion. The opening title sequence's drumline music if prominently featured during the wartime moments that Gamby and Russell are up to no good; it thumps from all around the room. When we're meant to be drawn in emotionally, the score will adopt a synth-driven '80s-esque feel that rivals classics like 'Better Off Dead;' it pulses in waves around all five channels.
'Vice Principals' is a crude rival-based comedy that not only delivers the vulgar and character-driven comedy, but surprisingly has some depth to it. All the while, it's executed with great quality. The visual quality is very strong. The sound mixing is good, but could have been great with livlier effects mixing. Only one meaty set of special features in included: hearty and entertaining commentaries for all nine episodes. The other two features are either mindless or insignificant. Fortunately, the series is so great that it carries more than enough for this release. Having been written and shot as one collective two-season, eighteen-episode series, we know that it's going to fulfill its intended vision and go out as-planned when season two airs this summer. I don't doubt that it will end well, but here's to hoping that it keeps up the greatness of this first recommended season.