The plot of Vice Principals seems, at first, charmingly simple: Two high school vice principals—the crass, monstrously egocentric Neal Gamby and slick-talking, secretly sociopathic Lee Russell, played by Danny McBride and Walton Goggins, respectively—in a power struggle over the vacant principal’s chair. The new HBO series from McBride and Jody Hill, two of the three creators of Eastbound and Down, is a dark comedy of one-upmanship in which Gamby and Russell’s antagonism is, admittedly, largely characterized by fantasies of sexual humiliation.
Their intense arguments closely resemble lovers’ quarrels; they meet repeatedly in the woods behind the school. While some of the jokes pointing out the show’s homoerotic subtext are, at best, tone deaf, Vice Principals takes a surprising amount of care to avoid gay panic humor—the offensive, straight-guy disgust of being hit on, which finds its apotheosis in Chandler Bing. When Gamby is confronted by the suggestion that he and Russell are having an affair, he takes issue with the idea that Russell would be the object of his affection, rather than the insinuation that he might have sex with a man. The sexual tension between Gamby and Russell is both a form of and a mask for intimacy. Vice Principals is the story of a friendship rather than a feud.
Both vice principals quickly lose out on the job to Dr. Belinda Brown, a hyper-competent black woman played by Kimberly Hebert Gregory. The former rivals work together to get her fired, using their hatred as the foundation of a relationship that grows beyond a shared interest in sabotage. Over the first six episodes, Gamby and Russell’s bond deepens significantly, reaching the equivalent of the “I love you” beat of the standard rom-com. (I was reminded of the Arrested Development episode where G.O.B. and magician Tony Wonder sleep together out of confusion and desperation because they’re incapable of telling the difference between genuine emotional connection and sexual attraction.) Neither of these men has any idea of how to relate to the other without aggression, and Vice Principals becomes a meditation—with poop jokes—on male heterosexual desire.
Between Men, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s pioneering 1985 study of homosocial desire in 19th century literature, argues that male-male desire in any form has to be routed through a woman for whom neither of the men has any real desire, thereby maintaining and supporting patriarchal power structures. Sedgwick’s fingerprints are all over Vice Principals. She describes the expression of male-male desire as a form of triangulation, with the woman functioning as a fulcrum for the men to sort out their own relationship. Gamby, Russell, and Belinda often sit in a literal triangle formation, with the principal in the middle. According to Sedgwick, the most powerful figure in that triangle is often a man capable of contingent androgyny—the flamboyant, bow-tied Russell fills this role ably, frequently admonishing Gamby for failing to play the game and be nice. But even Russell’s pathetic forms of resistance exist solely to uphold the pair’s patriarchal status games. After spitting in his mother-in-law’s tea, Russell tells his partner, “Now I fucking own her,” but the act changes nothing—Gamby is only person who sees him do it.
Here’s Sedgwick’s money quote: “For a man to undergo even a humiliating change in the course of a relationship with a man still feels like preserving or participating in a sum of male power, while for a man to undergo any change in the course of a relationship with a woman feels like a radical degeneration of substance.” This is, more or less, the exact plot of Vice Principals. Both Gamby and Russell push through their mutual disdain to acknowledge that the other man would still be a better choice than the woman they primarily refer to as “her.”
Vice Principals mocks the rituals of masculinity that are supposed to uphold this mutual dominance: A prank war between rival football teams, motocross rallies, even the Pledge of Allegiance. Everything is made absurd, from the show’s faux-militaristic score to the fights that kick off the premiere of the school’s mascot, the Warriors.
It would be easy, and lazy, to see these rituals as a cover for the characters having boners for boners, but none of this necessarily has anything to do with homosexuality per se. It doesn’t matter if the two men in a given triangle have done anything sexual—in fact, it would be hard for Sedgwick to determine if they had. Between Men argues that the lines surrounding the erotic are blurry and too dependent on context for crossing them to be important. Homosocial desire, she argues, falls somewhere on a spectrum, and, blissfully, Vice Principals takes the same tack. Gamby and Russell might end up making out, or they might not.
While little of the literature Sedgwick’s considers acknowledges women as more than currency in homosocial male relationships, television in 2016 has no lack of ostensibly heterosexual female friendships. Broad City’s Abbi and Ilana, Parks & Recreation’s Leslie and Ann—these friendships can sometimes function as coping mechanisms for dealing with men–but they rarely require them. Female friendship doesn’t invert the patriarchal triangle, it does away with it altogether.
In this light, the fumbling attempts at masculinity and intimacy grounding Vice Principals appears all the more pathetic. Gamby feels ashamed and adrift in the wake of his wife leaving him for Ray, a good-natured, kind, talented motocross driver. Russell is constantly put-upon by his mother-in-law and emasculated by a beefier, more masculine neighbor. Gamby tries to live up the legacy of his father—a principal who paddled his students—through a hyper-masculine strategy of enforcing “discipline.”
Without their burgeoning friendship, it’s easy to imagine Gamby and Russell becoming men’s rights activists. Where does the conniving male antihero, who has dominated so much of the last decade of TV, go in this newish world? Vice Principals tentatively, comically posits a survival strategy reliant on more earnest forms of male intimacy, but still couched in the same old destruction and patriarchy. It seems unlikely, but maybe Gamby and Russell will end up internalizing the lesson the old principal tries to beat into them on his last day in office. The aging Bill Murray is a surprisingly effective vehicle for this message: “It’s not about you.”