Pop Psych: ‘Vice Principals’ Reveals the (Kenny) Powers We Hide Behind Masks

Walton Goggins and Danny McBride in Vice Principals.

Walton Goggins and Danny McBride in Vice Principals. Fred Norris/HBO

Pop Psych: Where we ask a real psychotherapist to delve into the mindsets of our favorite pop culture characters.

HBO’s new Danny McBride vehicle,Vice Principals, is a bit of an odd bird, maybe by design. The show focuses on two vice principals, Neil Gamby (McBride) and Lee Russell (Walton Goggins), who begin the series as bitter enemies but quickly find themselves forced into an alliance as they struggle to get their new boss fired. The show is unflinching – it approaches topics such as racism, sexism, violence, bullying, and social ostracism head on, reveling in putting school administrators into the kinds of dramatic tangles they so frequently claim are the domain of children. In doing so, Vice Principals reveals certain hidden realities about adult culture, the kinds of things we like to believe we left behind in childhood.

‘Vice Principals’ reveals certain hidden realities about adult culture, the kinds of things we like to believe we left behind in childhood.

Neil Gamby is a man struggling to make his life work and seemingly coming up short in every endeavor. His relationship with his ex wife is bitter, his relationship with his daughter is loving but strained, and his relationships with essentially all of his coworkers are hostile. In the world that the show presents us, at least, it is clear that nobody likes Gamby. And for good reason: he espouses the sort of casual racism that makes people intensely uncomfortable (though he can claim that his closest friend, Dayshawn, is black), he is prone to social fantasies that lead to wild bouts of rage, and worst of all he’s too smug to listen when people try to talk him out of being such a jackass.

That people do still try to socialize him, of course, is the first clue that Gamby embodies a strange kind of paradox in society. By all rights he should be ostracized, but he isn’t. Instead, he garners an odd blend of respect and sympathy from his peers. In an early episode it is revealed that when it comes to doing his job – disciplining the students – he’s straightforward, forthright, and has good, if misguided, instincts. And as mentioned above, people seem to love trying to help him even though they’re never able to reach him.

There’s a reason that people like Gamby are able, and often forced to, hold these two seemingly opposed stances at once. To understand how and why this is able to happen, you have to understand a concept that grows out of family systems theory. The basic idea here is that most families work roughly the same, or at least all family members choose what roles to play from the same pool of archetypes, and these family roles tend to stick with us longer than we stick within our families. Which is a complicated way of saying that how you behave as a child can really set the tone for how you behave as an adult.

The "family" of Vice Principals.

The “family” of Vice Principals. Fred Norris/HBO

And while the general sorts of family roles can usually be grown out of if you want to grow out of them, there’s a kind of subgroup of family rules that are much harder to change. These are what’s known as the stress roles, which, predictably, only show up during times of stress. In contrast to the many archetypes available in the general family set, there’s really only four in the stress set. There’s the Identified Patient, the Caretaker, the Appeaser, and the Outcast.

When your family of origin–and, later, any tight-knit group you belong to–becomes stressed by forces too intense for the family to face head on, you all work together at playing out these roles in order to pacify the group. The Identified Patient is blamed for causing a problem; the Caretaker makes a big show of solving the Identified Patient’s problem; the Appeaser either leaves or tried to convince the group everything’s fine; and the Outcast gets quietly angry and then lashes out, usually at the Identified Patient.

An interesting piece of this little play we all engage in is that while it may look like certain people are helping and others are hurting, the fact is that all four roles are necessary to reduce the group’s overall level of stress. Essentially, when an issue is too big to confront, a few of us put on a troublemaking mask in order to give those of us who put on a problem solving mask something to accomplish. When large, impersonal, and unassailable forces batter us, we are able to use these roles to shrink them into something we can at least pretend to confront.

The staff of North Jackson High School form a kind of adult family, and the first thing we learn about that family is that it is experiencing grief and instability.

In the world of Vice Principals, the staff of North Jackson High School form a kind of adult family, and the first thing we learn about that family is that it is experiencing grief and instability. The first episode is dedicated to setting this up – the beloved principal is retiring on account of his wife’s terminal disease, and he has not figured out who is going to take over for him. In any family, the loss of the leader, and the unwillingness to appoint a new one, is cause for great existential stress. And to find out that someone new is coming in to take over, rather than having a known entity step up, can only add to that. It’s the kind of dilemma that’s too big to fight – illness, death, and old age are considered the three inevitable marks of existence by the Buddhists – so it’s instead transmuted through family stress roles.

And within this family stress environment, Gamby seems to play the role of the Outcast perfectly. He’s very problem oriented, to the point where he will cause a problem if too much time has passed since the last one. He’s prone to wild mood swings, going from expressively quiet to painfully loud in an instant. And his primary emotion seems to be anger. So while he looks like the problem and is treated like the problem by his peers, he is simultaneously expected to solve the problem.

This is most clear in the third episode of this season, The Field Trip. While Gamby has to talk his way onto the field trip and wade through the free-flowing disrespect aimed at him by his peers, he proves invaluable to the group. When he discovers that two students have gone missing during the overnight portion of the trip, the other teachers panic and express that they have no idea what to do, while Gamby shifts smoothly into action. He finds the missing students and disciplines them, albeit poorly. This is something none of the other members of the faculty family were willing to do, and they appreciate him for it.

Of course, these family roles are not an excuse to act like a jackass – in the same episode, Gamby’s romantic interest, Amanda Snodgrass (Georgia King), sits him down to tell him his douchebaggery is ruining the trip for everyone else. And she’s right; Gamby kind of sucks. Just because he’s the only one willing to be harsh when the situation demands it does not mean he gets a blank check to be harsh when the situation doesn’t demand it. And he knows this, too: he wouldn’t come around on Snodgrass‘ opinion if he didn’t. He just doesn’t really know what else he can do. Which is the inherent danger of adopting roles in the first place: it’s hard to get out of them.

James Cole Abrams, MA, is a psychotherapist living and working in Boulder and Denver, Colorado. His work can also be found at www.jamescoleabrams.com where he blogs every Sunday.

Pop Psych: ‘Vice Principals’ Reveals the (Kenny) Powers We Hide Behind Masks