This week’s cold open is indicative of both the good and the bad of Vice Principals. The scene sees Dr. Brown picking through the charred remains of her home as an officer tells her that this certainly looks like arson. Dr. Brown’s children, dressed in private school jackets, poke around the remains too. When the officer informs Brown that arson can be the result of an enemy or even a family member, he glances at her kids, implicating them in the crime. Then, as the family checks into a hotel, Dr. Brown tries to stop her kids from goofing around while a white family watches, a look of judgement painted across their face.
The scene is intriguing because it embodies the muddled, messy message and perspective of Vice Principals so far this season. Looking for a message in a foul-mouthed HBO comedy is tricky business, and everyone is coming to the show for something different, but it seems clear in this opening scene that Vice Principals is reckoning with something complex: the fact that the show’s protagonists, Russell and Gamby, might not be protagonists after all, and that Dr. Brown, the object of scorn, is perhaps the real hero here.
Consider the two scenes that make up the cold open. Here’s a qualified, strong black woman, with two kids who, while certainly energetic and chaotic like teenagers happen to be, are clearly educated and, as the episode goes on, empathetic and mature. Despite that, the white folks in the two scenes see nothing but bad parenting and out of control children. The officer all but states that Brown’s kids might have burned down the house, and the white family looking on at the hotel are clearly judging Brown’s parenting skills.
It’s the beginning of an episode-long exploration of Brown’s character. I’m not sure whether to call it a “humanization” or not because that would imply that she was somehow villainous before (she wasn’t), but “Run For The Money” does turn the tables on Gamby and Russell in such a way that to not identify with the plight of Dr. Brown, at least a little, would be ridiculous. As Brown becomes more relatable, and Gamby and Russell’s antics all the more indefensible, Vice Principals finds itself in an interesting position to look at ideas of race, entitlement, and privilege. Now, those might be lofty, weighty themes to ascribe to a half-hour comedy from Jody Hill and Danny McBride, but it’s certainly there in the text. “Run For The Money” operates in much the same way “A Trusty Steed” did, in that it explores how Gamby and Russell, two white men, struggle to deal with change.
It’s right there in this week’s plot, which involves North Jackson High and their rival school Percival engaging in Spirit Week pranks leading up to a big football showdown, one that NJH has lost nine years in a row. When Percival pulls off the first prank, Dr. Brown suggests that NJH refuse to retaliate, that all of this is childish and immature. “Well, it’s tradition, so…” says Gamby. The fact that his statement trails off is important. It shows that Gamby isn’t exactly sure why he buys into the competition and ritual. He can’t come up with any legitimate reason why Brown’s refusal to engage in the shenanigans is wrong. Instead, he relies on the age-old argument of entitled white men everywhere: it’s the way things have always been.
Where things get complicated is in parsing out whether or not the show is critiquing Gamby and Russell’s stubbornness and entitlement, or whether it’s actively suggesting we cheer for Brown’s downfall. It’s an impossible task. On the one hand McBride and Goggins imbue Gamby and Russell with such energy and charisma that we can’t help but be drawn to them; plus, they’re the source of the show’s comedy. On the other hand, Brown is a strong black woman who clearly deserves to succeed. Cheering for her downfall seems sinister, even within the context of the show. There’s comedy to be had in the chaos and destruction typical to Jody Hill’s comedies, but there’s a fine line between wonderfully dark comedy and misguided cruelty.
“Run For The Money” in no way answers the question of whether or not Russell and Gamby are our protagonists, but it does engage in an intriguing exploration of ritual, tradition, and a form of competition that feels uniquely American. When Gamby, Russell, and Brown head to Percival to try and make peace, they see that the rival school has no intention of toning things down. Their rally is pure school spirit. Thus, when Gamby returns to NJH and sees one paltry banner, he’s distraught. “There’s nothing about ‘go and kill those motherfuckers’,” he says to Ms. Snodgrass.
So, if Percival won’t back down, Brown realizes she has to step up. Her sons, who comfort her after she cries in her car, overwhelmed by everything that’s happened since her arrival at NJH, show her that it’s all about standing up and fighting. So she takes over at the pep rally and gets motivational. It’s another moment where Brown triumphs, even if the gospel tones once again complicate the moment. Still, the show has the potential to create real comedy in the push and pull between Brown, Russell, and Gamby by not committing to any of them as pure protagonists. So, we can still laugh at Russell’s defeated exclamation of “fuck me, she learned their goddamn names,” while also seeing Brown as a character worthy of success.
All that said, Vice Principals remains on shaky ground. The inspired acid trip at the end of the episode is a wonderful visual touch, all Jody Hill exuberance, and the show is doing some interesting things when it comes to critiquing its main characters; and yet, there’s still a lingering cruelty that’s off-putting. For some, that cruelty won’t be a problem, but rather just a symptom of the cringe comedy the show is shooting for. For others though, myself included, Vice Principals is barely balancing all of its perspectives, cruel and otherwise.
- Gamby isn’t a fan of Brown’s exclamation that “sports are dumb”: “you might want to take that up with the cereal Wheaties.”
- Edi Patterson continues to be delightfully weird: “I literally just finished blowing you.”
- Goggins’ one-liner about Brown learning the students’ names was the delivery of the night, but a close second is Brown’s youngest child: “We’ve been going through a lot mama, our house just burned down.”
- Of course Ray is from Percival, adding fuel to Gamby’s hatred.
- Another great Goggins line: lamenting Brown’s “soaring fucking rhetoric.”
- “This is Zachary, my in vitro child.”