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Television

Review: Danny McBride’s ‘Vice Principals’ is a high school mean girls comedy built around adult men

Vice Principals
Walton Goggins and Danny McBride star in “Vice Principals.”
(Fred Norris / HBO)

Danny McBride, the star and co-creator of HBO’s “Eastbound & Down,” is back as the star and co-creator (again with Jody Hill) of HBO’s “Vice Principals.”

Premiering Sunday, the series is a kind of temperamental sequel to the last. As high school vice principal (in charge of discipline) Neal Gamby, McBride again has a bearish case of arrested development; he’s insecure and overbearing, a font of imperfect wisdom and injured pride whose ego seems to grow in proportion to the degree in which it’s bruised — which it continually is. Like “Eastbound’s” fallen ballplayer Kenny Powers, we are meant to find Neal sort of horrible and sort of heroic. McBride makes that possible.

When the school principal — Bill Murray in a brief guest shot — retires, Neal goes to war with rival vice principal (in charge of curriculum) Lee Russell (Walton Goggins) for the top job. When it goes instead to an outsider, Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory), a black woman from up north, the two men join forces to bring her down.

Brown’s character is an invitation to political incorrectness — when told she graduated from Berkeley, Neal responds, “I’m pretty affirmative how she got in” — but that attitude is more a side dish here than an entree; despite their conniving, these characters are lunkheads at worst. A line like Neal’s comment to a driver’s ed student, “I know that driving doesn’t come natural to women, but I am impressed with your abilities,” is meant to tell us that he’s a fool, but that his foolishness is subject to improvement; he is forced to admit from time to time that he doesn’t know everything.

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Similarly, there is something in his crush on a new English teacher (Georgia King) and his imagined competition with the good-natured new husband (Shea Whigham) of his ex-wife (Busy Philipps), for the affection of his daughter (Maya G. Love) that at once underscores his need for love and the fact that he’s his own worst enemy.

There’s a softness to McBride and Goggins alike that makes the bromantic-frenemies aspects of the story obvious and also a little hard to figure in some respects. It is sexually ambiguous in a way that isn’t quite clear, but feels intentional. This is a high school mean girls comedy built around adult men. (In one scene, Lee snubs Neal by going to get his hair cut with another teacher.) The kids are mature by comparison.

While it’s true that all comedy is a matter of taste, and that one person’s guffaw is another’s groan, some comedy seems to be especially so. I’m not sure that “Vice Principals” is funny in the way that I was sure that, say, “30 Rock” was funny because I could hear myself laughing. But there is a kind of comedy in which the actual proper reaction is horror or pity.

Indeed, there are scenes, as when a character’s house is destroyed, for no good reason, where laughter would serve only to indict the viewer as heartless. Like its predecessor, “Vice Principals” goes all in for profanity and the trading of childish insults (“Keep walkin’, sassypants” is one I can quote), and there is a certain melodic delight in hearing Goggins pronounce the multisyllabic bad words the basic-cable rules kept from him saying on “Justified.” But the comic returns do diminish.

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At times, “Vice Principals” seems a dark-hearted comedy about the pursuit and illusion of power — “The first thing I’m going to do as principal is not fire you, but keep you on staff as my slave,” Neal tells Ray — and at other times, a warm-hearted comedy dressed in black. I’ve watched six episodes — 18 have reportedly been produced, to air over two seasons, which suggests character development is not out of the question. I was wary of “Eastbound & Down” at the beginning, but a fan by the end; I expect something of the same could happen here.

In a film, these changes would be locked in by the time two hours were up. Here, bad behaviors and counterproductive actions will hold sway for who knows how long; light is glimpsed, and then the blinds are drawn. But they may be raised again.

“Vice Principals”

Where: HBO

When: 10:30 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

On Twitter: @LATimesTVLloyd

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