But the saga of Russell and Gamby has less to do with the campaign against Brown than with their campaign for status and the attendant improved self-esteem. They are mediocre, middle-aged white men whose longing to escape their rut leads them to revolting behavior. A bitter divorce and his ex’s genial new husband’s deepening connection with his daughter have fractured Gamby’s home and sense of his own power. Russell’s home life is characterized by shrieking bust-ups with his mother-in-law, as well as an implied romantic disinterest in his wife. Gamby and Russell believe they have a right to feel successful, but they don’t. They demand to be in charge of something, but they aren’t. Within minutes of watching, I concluded that the show was supposed to be quite sad.
Like the students he clumsily counsels, Gamby should address the roots of his suffering. He uses a Circle Room session as an opportunity to rant to wide-eyed and silent kids about "females who cheat" in a "world full of meanness." From his barren apartment to his desperate attempts to impress his daughter as she, inspired by her stepfather, pursues an interest in motocross, Gamby needs his own restoration of sorts.
Meanwhile, Russell’s mother-in-law renders him a prisoner in his own house. When he’s forced to confront his bodybuilding neighbor who blasts metal at intolerable levels and hurls slurs at his family (his wife and her mother are Korean), neither politeness nor the police help. The neighbor mocks and physically assaults him—and finally, Russell calls Gamby, who drives up, brimming with his own fury, and punches the man cold. Sometimes sniffing out the root cause of a behavior is pointless, the show seems to say. Some students, as Gamby tells Brown when defending his approach to discipline, just "have darkness in their hearts, and will never learn." And sometimes, the scene suggests, adults are no different.
On a pupil-free day of “teamwork exercises,” Brown addresses “the squabbles” she’s sparked, but there’s no staff enthusiasm for pep talks or the promised tacos. This is realistic. In my experience, good teachers like learning new skills but scoff when an entire day without students ends up dedicated to “team-building” or celebrating a convoluted plan for improving school culture. On such days, I’ve been forced to do the Macarena, play charades, feed a co-worker breakfast by hand, and participate in a basic-training-inspired obstacle course. None of that made me a better teacher, and none of it emboldened me to have more faith in administrators. All I could think about was how much I wanted to be grading papers or planning better lessons. In Vice Principals, the ice-breaker—a guessing game designed to “improve communication skills”—breaks no ice; it merely affirms the chill between characters. Ironically, Brown’s estranged husband—a philanderer desperate to see his kids (who behave terribly and always seem to be wearing their private-school uniforms)—shows up and pleads his case via loudspeaker. By the end of the episode, Brown appears headed toward an ill-advised romantic reunion. Her husband’s presence does break the ice and helps staff members, if their applause can be construed as sincere, see their principal in a more human light. Yet, in revealing Brown’s domestic struggles, the moment also affirms a suspected thesis of the show: These people can’t even run their own lives, much less a school.