One of the best things about the first season of Vice Principals was how much the show grew. A slowburn approach isn’t always the best option when it comes to episodic TV, but for Vice Principals it worked. Over eight episodes the HBO comedy used its patient approach to continually escalate tensions, vulgarity, and the sheer insanity of the plot. Not every episode hit its mark, but it did contribute to an overall feeling of momentum, a building dread and lunacy that paid off in spades when Neil Gamby was shot in the season finale.

When the second season premiere aired just a couple of weeks ago, it looked like Vice Principals wasn’t going to waste any time getting back to the heights of last season’s finale. After catching up with Gamby’s recovery and bringing him back to a school that looked very different under Principal Lee Russell, it seemed like all the pieces were in place for the show to get ludicrous again. Unfortunately, “The King” feels a lot like some of the placeholder episodes that defined the earliest parts of season one, never quite finding its footing or doing much to move the story along in any meaningful way.

With that said, I do appreciate the show’s willingness to tell a more focused, small-scale story. “The King” isn’t overly ambitious, or interested in the season’s larger arc about Gamby’s shooter, but rather content with focusing on two storylines and garnering laughs. “The King” certainly continues Gamby’s fruitless efforts to identify the person who shot him, but the episodes spend more time focusing on his relationship with Snodgrass, including a peak at her new beau, and Russell’s attempts to find out which one of the teachers is drawing tasteless (and hilarious) pictures of him and placing them around the school; the drawing in question sees Russell sitting on a throne, completely naked, with the title “King Ding-A-Ling.” It’s a pretty great caricature, if I’m being honest; it captures something about Russell’s essence.

The more thorough exploration of Gamby and Snodgrass’ relationship, or rather non-relationship, begins with a stellar cold open. The episode flashes back to the day of the shooting. Snodgrass comes out of North Jackson High School to take in the chaos, seeing patches of blood where Gamby’s body used to be. She rushes to the hospital to make sure he’s okay, and when she hears from the doctor that he’s stable, she says she’s his girlfriend and requests to see him. The doctor goes into Gamby’s room and comes out with some bad news: “Mr. Gamby says he doesn’t have a girlfriend.” Snodgrass looks confused and shattered, and the episode smashes to its title sequence.

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It’s a scene that’s both stirring and hilarious. There’s genuine emotion in Snodgrass’ rush to the hospital and her worry over Gamby, and the single, dismissive line from him cuts deep, but not without getting a laugh. That’s the balance Vice Principals always hopes to strike, but it’s perhaps most confidently displayed in everything involving Gamby and Snodgrass. Their back-and-forth relationship is the show’s most reliable emotional anchor, and also one its more inspired comedic sources. “The King” not only has Gamby tracking down Brian and pulling a gun on him while pretending to be Officer Winslow, it also has him trying and failing as a substitute teacher—a bit involving Frankenstein vs. Frankenstein’s monster might be the best of the episode—and reverting back to his childlike tendency to show his affection towards Snodgrass by being mean to her.

But in that meanness is something that’s quite compelling, and the climax of the episode, and perhaps of their relationship, sees Vice Principals truly find that balance between sweet and vulgar. When Snodgrass confronts Gamby about his behavior with Brian, things get messy. They each go off on each other, but Snodgrass also reveals that she’s got a meeting with Penguin in regards to publishing her book. The astonished, proud look on Gamby’s face is genuinely touching, but it’s not long before the two go back to arguing, lying about not being each other’s type before Gamby starts rambling about how much he hates her pubic hair. It’s strange and delightful and somehow charming, and it’s the heart of this show.

Well, to be fair, Russell is certainly the heart of this show too, but it’s a heart that’s much more rotten, which of course offers its own comedic rewards. Again, “The King” isn’t exactly a standout episode in terms of storytelling, but it does execute the comedic basics in a way that still feels satisfying. That means we get plenty of Russell being nasty and vindictive, snapping at his wife, hitting his mother-in-law in the head and yelling at her to go to bed, and getting angry when he can’t attack a fellow teacher because, as he crudely puts it, he’s “a handicapped.”

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The general momentum here suggests that Gamby is moving toward some sort of empathetic way of life while Russell is barreling forward with his cynicism and nastiness. While Gamby puts his faith back in Robin Shandrell, Russell is firing all of his teachers and alienating everyone around him. As a closing montage with a voiceover about the Reconstruction Era plays out, we see North Jackson High School once again descending into chaos. Mr. Milner is attacked, Nash is taking down the stoners, and our three main players—Gamby, Russell, and Snodgrass—are all uncertain about what their future holds. “The King” may not be the most immediately thrilling episode of Vice Principals, but it promises much for the future.

Stray observations

  • Russell is appalled that the crude caricature doesn’t even look like him. Gamby isn’t so sure: “Maybe you come across like a guy that has a small, itty-bitty penis.”
  • I would watch a whole other series with Gamby as a substitute teacher getting consistently owned by his students.
  • “That was a classic comedy cutoff!” says Gamby after nearly killing Bill.
  • Gamby isn’t intimated by Brian’s imbedded journalism with a cannibalistic tribe: “When push comes to shove, I can eat people too.”
  • “Well, you’re going to be pretty far from your friends when you’re in heaven, dead, from being shot.”

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