Eastbound and Down's Jody Hill and Danny McBride brought the first two episodes of their upcoming HBO series Vice Principals to SXSW, and now I'm outraged I have to wait until July to see the rest. It's a mean comedy that will have you cracking up and cringing in equal measure, and it's made especially brilliant through the casting of Walton Goggins as an unhinged Southern dandy who will burn to the ground anyone who stands in his way.
Goggins is Lee Russell, a high school co-vice principal along with McBride's Neal Gamby, and after Principal Welles (Bill Murray in a cameo) announces his retirement due to his wife's long battle with cancer, the two men turn their natural dislike for one another into a brutal but short-lived rivalry. Short-lived, because the school board quickly announces Welles' replacement, and neither Russell nor Gamby will be taking over the principal's parking space. Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) is the new principal, and an incensed Russell and Gamby decide to temporarily team up to take her down.
The first two episodes take a lot of unexpected turns, revealing that very little about Vice Principals is predictable. The biggest surprise, for me, is that McBride - playing a fairly typical McBride character here - takes on the role of straight man to Goggins' reckless Russell. He eggs on Gamby to plumb new depths, and their scheme to undermine Dr. Brown quickly turns reprehensible. It's clear that these two men - middle management at a dinky public school in South Carolina - are far more dangerous as allies than they ever were as enemies.
The supporting cast is great: Gregory is both sweet and steely as Dr. Brown, and Busy Philipps is consistently hilarious as Gamby's ex-wife Gale. She left him for Shea Whigham's Ray, and though Neal has devoted his considerable energy toward hating Ray, Whigham doesn't make it easy. The cuckolder is incredibly charming and kind, and - as Hill joked in the Q&A - probably the only decent character on the show. Sheaun McKinney is really good as Dayshaun, the cafeteria worker who acts as bemused spy for a paranoid Neal.
And of course Bill Murray is inspired as Principal Welles, who likely won't return after the pilot but is a memorable character that kicks off the series in a hilarious opening scene. McBride said that Murray agreed to cameo on the show after reading the script, and had only one note: Welles had to bring his dying wife, on a gurney, to the farewell assembly the school organized for him. What a perfect note! It made for one of the biggest laughs - and Vice Principals is definitely not short on laughs.
Be on the lookout for Vice Principals to premiere on HBO in July. David Gordon Green directed several of the series' 16 episodes - which HBO ordered without even seeing a pilot. You can watch the new teaser below: