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A dark comedy about campus rivalry

In the HBO series Vice Principals, Danny McBride plays Neal Gamby, a vice principal in a high school fighting for a higher position against his nemesis.

During high school in 19-forgotten, I remember there was a running feud between two (both brilliant) teachers over a position left vacant by the principal who had just died. I’m not sure how it ended (or who won) because I had graduated before the issue was resolved.

That incident came to mind last Friday during a regional teleconference with actor Danny McBride who stars in the HBO comedy Vice Principals as Neal Gamby, the co-vice principal and chief disciplinarian who is locked in a bitter struggle with his nemesis Lee Russell (played by Walton Goggins, an Emmy nominee for Justified, Six), his fellow vice principal with whom he connives to take down new principal Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory of Devious Maids, etc.) even as he craves for the job himself.

“The idea for the show goes back to my high school days,” McBride told the participating journalists from Singapore, Taiwan, India and the Philippines. “I always wanted to be in the movies so I went to L.A. to try my luck. I waited on tables until I decided to go back to Virginia and spent time at the teachers’ lounge where I closely observed school politics.”

The series largely derives from real incidents, real people, real situations.

“We were writing what we knew,” confessed McBride. “We were interpreting people that we knew when we were younger, such as those I met in that high school in Virginia.” 

Described as “the darkest comedy on television,” Vice Principals was created by McBride himself with Jody Hill and shot in and around Charleston, South Carolina. The first nine-episode season kicked off exclusively on HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601, with streaming on HBO On StarHub Go and HBO On Demand, StarHub TV Channel 602) in September at 10:30 a.m. (with the same day encore at 10 p.m., same time as in the US).

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On that season, as the tumultuous school year at North Jackson High continued, a new semester brought big changes, with both Gamby and Russell about to learn that the only thing harder than gaining power was holding on to it.

“The first season was very mean,” said McBride, “it was about crime. The second season is much darker. It’s about punishment.” 

…with Walton Goggins as Lee Russell, the co-vice principal with whom Gamby eventually connives to take down the sitting principal, each of them with ulterior motive. Says McBride, ‘I underplay jokes. I find humor in awkwardness and in uncomfortable situations. I am into cringe comedy and I love to make people squirm…For the series, we chose protagonists that I don’t think people would usually choose for lead characters, heroes who are not really heroes.’

In episode #17 titled Spring Break (directed by McBride who co-wrote it with John Carcieri and Jeff Fradley) airing this morning (10:40, with a replay tonight at 11:30) on HBO, tensions between Gamby and Russell come to a head as prom night approaches. (In the finale episode titled The Union of the Wizard & the Warrior, directed by David Gordon Green from a teleplay also by McBride and Fradley with Carcieri, next Monday, Nov. 13, same time, the school year comes to a startling end, so find out who between Gamby and Russell will emerge triumphant.)

Asked what inspired the “dark comedy,” McBride disclosed, “The whole thing goes back to Shakespeare…you know, the battle for the crown, the battle for the throne. The battle in the series is not for a kingdom but for supremacy in school. The idea for the series is that I want to show people something that they haven’t seen before. I want to surprise people and that’s a hard thing to do so these days.”

And what’s so unique about the series, what sets it apart from other comedies?

“We chose protagonists that I don’t think people would usually choose for lead roles in the story. The series features heroes that are not heroes; it defies genres,” explained McBride who played Kenny Powers, the boorish former Major League Baseball pitcher turned substitute physical education teacher in four seasons of Eastbound & Down, a role that abruptly departed from his nasty-tempered, aggressively striving school administrator in Vice Principals. “The whole series shows how power can corrupt people, how far and what people would do to get power.”

In an interview, McBride was quoted as saying that “comedy is probably the genre I’ve followed the least as far as my watching habits go.” So what kind of movies did he watch as he grew up?

“I was into horror movies. I’ve also always loved watching movies by Coppola and Scorsese, movies of the ’70s like Taxi Driver. I was fascinated by movies with strange characters.”

And describing his “unique” comedy style, he added, “I underplay jokes. I find humor in awkwardness and in uncomfortable situations. I gear more toward cringe comedy which is what you can expect from Vice Principals. I love to make people squirm.”

How is he similar to any or all the characters he is playing?

McBride laughed. “I guess people who really know me can say that they don’t see myself in those characters. Off camera, I am kind of laidback, never nasty-tempered. But,” he hastened to add, “there’s always a little piece of you in every character you play.”

And if he were one, what kind of principal/school administrator would he be?

McBride laughed some more. “I wouldn’t be power-hungry, definitely! I wouldn’t be like Neal Gamby. I would be a better principal.”

In real life, McBride has a daughter. How did he think his daughter would react to the series?

“Oh,” said McBride, “she’s still very small, only more than two years old. When she grows up, I will tell her to watch the show and then I’ll find out what her reaction will be.”

(E-mail reactions at entphilstar@yahoo.com. For more updates, photos and videos, visit www.philstar.com/funfare or follow me on Instagram @therealrickylo.)

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