by Doctor Science
Tonight is the start of a new HBO series, Vice Principals. I'm not privy to the screeners given to pro reviewers, but based on their reports it's the most blatantly racist show that's been on TV in my adult life (and I was born in the 1950s). It sounds like the fictional counterpart to Donald Trump's campaign: against "political correctness" and for the honest, open expression of anti-black, anti-woman, anti-immigrant hostility. The only question is whether the show's racism is due to ignorant cluelessness, honest Trumpism, or cynical courtship of the Trumpist population.
This post contains spoilers, which is OK by me because the show is already rotten.
I first heard about "Vice Principals" when I read Sonia Saraiya's review at Variety. This "dark comedy" from showrunners Danny McBride and Jody Hill, creators of Eastbound and Down, is about Neal Gamby (McBride) and Lee Russell (Walton Goggins), incompetent high-school vice principals who think they've been passed over when Belinda Brown ( Kimberly Hebert Gregory), a competent Black woman with a doctorate, is appointed Principal instead. Saraiya says:
In the second episode, the two break into her house, smash her possessions, and eventually set her house on fire.I was so appalled that I went looking for a fuller description, which I found from Willa Paskin at Slate:
Neal and Russell break into Brown's house to try to get some dirt on her. Finding nothing, Russell starts to break stuff: a plate, a mug. He bullies Neal into breaking things too until Neal is overcome by a kind of bloodlust. In a slavering frenzy, the two lay waste to the house, smashing televisions and tables, sticking chairs into walls, slashing a portrait of Brown and her two sons. And then Russell takes a lighter to the curtains; the house burns to the ground. Where Gamby is acting on animal instinct, Russell understands they can't leave the house as is: too much evidence.Nearly a hate crime?!? No, arson against black people's homes is a traditional, all-American tactic of extra-legal terrorism to push African-Americans out of places white people don't think they belong. Of course it's a hate crime, they shouldn't have to burn a cross for you to get the point.
In this scene, violence acts as a respite for the violent, a few minutes when they don't have to think, when they answer to no one, when they are kings and can be as destructive as they please. By asking its audience to get caught up in this delirium, Vice Principals wants to demonstrate the lure of this kind of destructive power. I admire the gambit, but I couldn't go for it. Witnessing a temper tantrum that's nearly a hate crime is about as funny on TV as it is in the news.
Let me emphasize again: burning the home of a black person to "encourage" them to leave town isn't "outrageous", "unbelievable", or "over-the-top" -- as it ought to be if it's the stuff of comedy. And it's not a historical relic of the distant past, either: such arsons continue into the 21st century, though at least they're rare, now.
Skimming through reviews of "Vice Principals", most critics don't even mention the racism, and those who do say things like "may be arriving at a less than ideal time for its particular brand of humor" or "utter cluelessness about the times in which we live" -- as though there might have *ever* been a time when "hilarious hate crime" was OK or at least unremarkable.
The obliviousness of most reviewers does lend credence to the idea that McBride & Hill are simply clueless and unreflective about what they've put together. It's also quite possible that they're closeted Trumpists, who share their views without admitting it (possibly to themselves). McBride said, in a Rolling Stone interview where Jonah Weiner tried to push him toward self-awareness:
the idea is that there's this image of alpha-male masculinity that back in the day people aspired to, but in the current social context it's seen as oppressive and narrow-minded. So these characters are trying to behave in the way they think they're supposed to, but the seat at the table for guys like them is disappearing.It's very like what Nicholas Confessore sees in Trump's supporters:
The resentment among whites feels both old and distinctly of this moment. It is shaped by the reality of demographic change, by a decade and a half of war in the Middle East, and by unease with the newly confident and confrontational activism of young blacks furious over police violence. It is mingled with patriotism, pride, fear and a sense that an America without them at its center is not really America anymore.There's a pretty good chance that "Vice Principals" will appeal to such people -- Saraiya says that it seems to be aimed at them:
... in a world where there doesn't seem to be enough empathy to go around, choosing to give these two men in particular so much consideration feels like wasteful confusion, like the most basic kind of carelessness. The focus makes an obvious implication about the intended audience of this comedy. This is a show pitched at the Neals and Lees of the world, not the Belinda Browns.Maybe McBride & Hill are cynically appealing to Trumpists. After all, even if Trump True Believers are only 30% of the population and not destined for political dominance, that's one hell of a large demographic by TV standards, a tempting target.
There's a streak of angry malice running throughout "Vice Principals" that comes out in odd outbursts of slur-ridden insults or especially heinous examples of workplace manipulation. It feels often as if the show cannot contain the anger and resentment it is trying to tap into, and instead of doing the work of converting it into comedy, it has just unleashed unpleasantness into the ether.
Even if McBride & Hill want to show their protagonists eventually seeing the error of their racist ways, they're doing it wrong. I keep thinking of what the fan lierdumoa said last year in a tumblr discussion of "Mad Max: Fury Road":
there's a great lie we've been told -- that in order for an audience to understand that a character is sexist, women must be humiliated on camera.What McBride & Hill are doing is showing their audience that the POV of violent racist misogynists is worthwhile, and comically amusing. McBride says "my character, Neal, as much as he's a jerk, has a solid heart."
The truth is this:
When a male character calls a female character a bitch in a movie, that is not the filmmaker's way of showing the audience the character is sexist; that is the filmmaker's way of showing the audience that the character's sexist point of view is worth hearing.
"A solid heart" -- because he didn't really mean to commit a hate crime, it just sort of happened. Please. This is Lee Atwater-ism, and just because McBride isn't saying the N-word doesn't mean his audience can't hear it.
 I haven't seen *any* review from an African-American, as far as I can tell.