Cards on the table for a second: when I saw a commercial about a comedy show featuring Danny McBride (Eastbound & Down) and Walton Goggins (Justified), chances are I was fairly most of the way in before seeing an episode. So know that whatever you may read next, it's going to have those prejudices in mind, OK? OK.
The latest in McBride's HBO television work reunites him with EB & D friend and longtime pal Jody Hill. The two have worked together for awhile and the show runs a little closer to their 2006 film The Foot Fist Way than anything else, and the two say that they worked on the story back in 2006. McBride plays Neal Gamby and Goggins plays Lee Russell. The two are Vice Principals in a South Carolina high school, vying for the open Principal position and have a bit of a rivalry with each other. When that position goes to an out of town candidate, the two join forces to run the new Principal out of town and the Best Man can hopefully win the job.
So, a word before diving into Vice Principals for those expecting something like Eastbound & Down: this is not that show. I repeat: this is not that show. For it to be that show, either Neal Gamby or Lee Russell would have to have appeared onto a national landscape with a fantastic debut, only to flame out yet retaining the cockiness of stardom. These are not those guys. These are Vice Principals, so the chance for any sort of arrogance is limited by the profession. Lee is a kissup, Neal is the disciplinarian Vice Principal you remember growing up. The type of teacher who'd probably have a set of handcuffs as a tie pin, because they lived for such things. It's in their lives outside the school where we see some emotional range.
For Neal, this means being a Dad to his daughter Janelle while she lives with her mother (Busy Phillipps, Freaks and Geeks) and father (Shea Whigham, Take Shelter). The two have a great relationship but Neal wants to be the perfect Dad to Janelle despite not having the means to do so. Lee is married and he lives with his wife and mother, though the latter doesn't seem to respect him. In the principal job they both see a way upwards, perhaps in money, perhaps in respect, but something that serves as a dream to both.
Standing in the way of that dream is the new principal, Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory, I Think I Love My Wife). Brown tries to acclimate herself and her two sons to this new part of the country on her own. The misguided and perhaps even futile aspirations for themselves in the hopes of getting admiration from others is a link that Neal, Lee and Belinda share, and seeing them compromise some of their existing value systems to get to a desired end point over the course of the season is fun to watch.
Of the three, Gregory is the jewel here, with a fascinating amount of tenderness combined with laughs and gravitas. Goggins plays a certain departure from his past roles, and McBride, closer to Fred Simmons than Kenny Powers, gives us a guy who basks in his authority but doesn't realize how limited it is at times. Without his wife, his targeted love interest is Ms. Snodgrass (Georgina King, Austenland), who has a bit of an innocent waif thing going on but does have motivations of her own.
Another point where Vice Principals differs with Eastbound & Down is that McBride and Hill (at last check) have said that the show would be two seasons of nine episodes, and nothing more, a contrast against Eastbound and most of that existence being done at the network's insistence. So there would seem to be an insistence on staying to their sensibilities that is welcomed here. How they left Season One and where they go with Season Two remains to be seen of course, but it's doing it in a different, more genuine voice, and I'm looking forward to see what comes next.
9 episodes, split over two discs and use the AVC encode on their 1.78:1 high-definition widescreen transfers. They look as expected from their original airings, perhaps a little better for me as the image detail was both accurate and a little more subtle than I expected on the discs, at least as far as facial pores and hairs show. The South Carolina summer blares overhead and the heat and humidity palpable. Colors and flesh tones are natural and haloing is minimal. All in a solid transfer.
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless surround with the results just as impressive. The Hill/McBride joints bring a very good amount of music to them and it all sounds clear and dynamic, whether it's the Beach Boys or the moments of drumline that are during the moments of dialogue. Directional effects and channel panning are present though not entirely active, and dialogue sounds clear as can be. It is a straightforward and convincing reproduction of the episodes.
Commentaries on each episode, featuring McBride, Goggins or Hill on each episode, and including Gregory, King, and producer John Carcieri, among others. The tracks include such nuggets like how Bill Murray (who appeared in the premiere) convinced them to shoot in Charleston, some of the approaches on set and production design, and a good amount of production recollection. There is a solid amount of watching the onscreen action and even more laughs amongst the cast-driven tracks. Their additions here are decent though not spectacular. Deleted scenes accompany all the episodes (18, 18:29) and include some omitted introspective doubts from the characters, and a bit of a vehicle for Edi Patterson, who plays Ms Abbott, a teacher who has a thing for Neal. A blooper reel on Disc Two is the only other extra (4:59) and a mildly disappointing one.
Vice Principals may disappoint some looking for Kenny Powers meets Boyd Crowder, but if they wanted to do that show I'd watch that also I guess? As it stands, this show is an interesting, sometimes touching version that includes laughs and occasional tears and gets good performances from almost all of the ensemble. Technically the discs are pretty and the bonus material is good, even if the commentaries tire after a bit. It's definitely worth checking out for fans of either star, or for quality HBO comedic gags.