The first season of HBO’s Vice Principals took awhile to find its footing. In fact, it might be more apt to say that each episode of the eight-episode first season contained something brilliant and evocative, but those moments were often countered by some sloppy storytelling and a muddled sense of morality that made it difficult to identify with just about any character on the show. At times, that made the show admirably challenging; at other times, it made it feel like a show with a scattered plot and no real emotional anchor, something necessary even in the raunchiest of comedies. As conflicted as the show could be, everything seemed to clarify in the season finale. “End Of The Line” brought everything together, from the themes and plot to the show’s creative direction, in a half-hour of balls-to-the-wall chaos.
The season two premiere wastes no time picking up the tone set in that finale. As “Tiger Town” gets underway, Gamby is walking the halls of North Jackson High. The school is nothing but chaos, with desks and garbage cluttering the hallways, and students running around like they’re going paintballing at Greendale Community College. Then Gamby, adorned in a headdress and face paint, comes across a tiger roaming the halls, and just before he’s attacked he wakes up from this fever dream, his apathetic daughter by his side. It’s a cold open that immediately assures the audience that Vice Principals’ unique visual tone isn’t going anywhere. In fact, the second season premiere seems to double down on nearly everything that succeeded in the first season, suggesting that there’s no reason not to have confidence in McBride and company when it comes to rolling out the show’s second and final season.
While there’s plenty of pandemonium in “Tiger Town,” the episode benefits from telling a simple A-to-B-to-C story. Rather than feeling the need to check in with every single character from last season, “Tiger Town” focuses on Gamby. Most of the other players make an appearance, but it’s all in service of telling the story of how Gamby gets back to being his usual, prick-ish self. When the episode begins Gamby is recovering in Ray and Gale’s home, no longer interested in his job at North Jackson. Of course, he’s making their life a living hell, using his electric chair lift when he doesn’t need to and ordering Gale around like she’s his nurse. As usual, Ray is amenable to it all, forever stuck being the nice guy that just can’t say no. That dynamic remains in play, even as Gamby runs down Gale.
Gamby’s recovery acts as the throughline for the season premiere, and that anchors a lot of the episode’s more outrageous asides; and hey, what would Vice Principals be without that? For instance, it turns out that Gamby has built an intricate diorama of the school parking lot in order to try and determine who shot him. He takes another look, taking in all the various paper clippings that would typically be the sign of some sort of sociopath (and may be here too, if we’re being honest). And who does Gamby conclude is the shooter? “Belinda Brown. Had to be her,” he says with confidence as he looks at her picture and the sticky note beside it that says “gang relations?”
In that moment is one of the show’s trickier hurdles to jump. The “gang relations?” note is a visual joke that takes a stab at the way black people are often villainized without any evidence of wrongdoing. For some, the joke may be too much to handle. Considering the state of race relations in the U.S., it would be perfectly understandable if some found the joke to be just too in-line with the hateful rhetoric that populates are TV screens and Twitter feeds on a daily basis. It’s likely that the success of that small joke, which in turn embodies much of the series’ humor, depends on whether you think the show glamorizes or villainizes Gamby. It’s a question I went back and forth on throughout the first season, but at this point I think it’s hard to see Gamby as anything other than an obnoxious, often harmful buffoon. Vice Principals certainly isn’t condoning his racism, but it also isn’t going out of its way to question it, or to give Gamby some sort of comeuppance. Whether you can accept that or not is a litmus test for the series in general.
But maybe that indecisiveness on the part of the show is, in some sense, the point? When Gamby tracks down Belinda Brown and confronts her in the bathroom of a Chinese restaurant, she barely even acknowledges his accusations. Instead, she laughs, lays out the case for the shooter being Lee Russell, and then tops it off by showing Gamby a tattoo she got on her back to represent that she’s put both of them behind her: a caricature of Russell and Gamby eating literal shit while holding hands. Brown isn’t offended by Gamby so much as she sees him for the coward he is. Much like he couldn’t get over the fact that a woman got a job over him in the first season, he can’t fathom that his white coworker and suppose friend, who was previously his sworn enemy, might shoot him. Instead, he leans on his prejudice yet again, and that’s something Belinda Brown has plenty of experience dealing with. She knows Gamby is all empty, spineless rhetoric, and she has no time for it.
“Tiger Town” does a good job of doing the necessary plot work to get Gamby back to North Jackson High while also doubling down on the idea that both Gamby and Russell are two white dudes getting a free ride in this world. It’s a mix that didn’t always work in the first season, but it did contribute to the feeling that Vice Principals, by accident, perfectly encapsulates the mood of our political climate. What “Tiger Town” does is take the idea that many white dudes are largely ignorant, coast on unearned rewards, and benefit from a social structure that’s privileged them for hundreds of years, and push it to a place of sheer absurdity. It’s in Russell’s ridiculous tiger-themed office, his flashy new BMW, and the fact that both Gamby and Russell are back at North Jackson High despite their (still yet to be uncovered) role in nearly burning the school to the ground.
In essence, “Tiger Town” is a promising start to the season. It’s raunchy, hilarious, and boasts a narrative throughline that keeps everything grounded. On top of that, it assures us that there’s no end in sight to the absurdity; a power play between Russell and Gamby may be looming, and that’s bound to push these characters to new extremes. If you found yourself on Vice Principals’ unique, challenging wavelength last season, “Tiger Town” suggests that you will be again.
- Welcome back to weekly reviews of Vice Principals! After the first season slowly drew me into its warped world, I have to say I couldn’t be more excited to dig back in here and see what the show has in store for us in its second and final season.
- Gamby really needs to work on the deliver of his revenge lines. “Do you feel bad about shooting me? So am I.” He’s no Travis Bickle, that’s for sure.
- Not only is Gamby’s racism on display with the “gang relations?” note, it’s also made pretty clear when Gamby thinks there’s one person at North Jackson that will know where Belinda Brown is: Dayshawn, the black cafeteria worker.
- Russell may not be the best companion for a visit to the park. “I don’t give a fuck about these ducks.” Man, it’s so nice to have Walton Goggins back dropping F-bombs. I’ve really missed it.
- Similarly, “my taint’s being licked by the budget” is a line I didn’t know I needed to hear Goggins deliver.
- Gamby coming back to North Jackson only to be bombarded by a surprise assembly in his honor, complete with everyone singing “If I Saw You In Heaven,” is really the perfect re-introduction to this show’s twisted, hilarious, cringeworthy universe.