NEW YORK (AP) — At the end of last season's fiercely absorbing "Vice Principals," administrator Neal Gamby was left sprawled on the pavement of the North Jackson High parking lot in a pool of blood, gunned down by an unknown assailant.
Could this be payback from Dr. Belinda Brown, the former North Jackson principal who was overthrown by Gamby in cahoots with his sometime-ally Lee Russell (even as they stayed bitter rivals, both vying for Brown's job)?
Nothing is so simple on "Vice Principals."
"It's not like there's just one person Gamby can point to who could have done it," says Danny McBride, who plays him, and can't help but chuckle. What's so funny about attempted murder? For starters, Gamby is such an indiscriminate jerk! "It's like he's rubbed EVERYBODY he's ever encountered so wrong that ANYONE could have done it." Even his co-conspirator Lee!
Upon his recovery, Neal will spend this second and concluding nine-episode season, which premieres Sunday (10:30 p.m. Eastern) on HBO, trying to flush out, and wreak vengeance on, whomever it was who tried to off him.
He will also resume his dogged campaign (in partnership with Lee when they're not in cutthroat competition) to land the grand prize: his name on the North Jackson principal's office door.
Among the many things that make "Vice Principals" so funny, yet so poignant: No one could be less fit for the job than this misanthropic lout — unless it is Lee, a Machiavellian dandy.
"Considering those guys' mental state, some of the students are probably more advanced than either of them," says McBride.
"I'd say MOST," says Walton Goggins, who plays Lee, and busts out laughing.
"Almost ALL of them," McBride hastily agrees.
A creator and writer of "Vice Principals," McBride ("Eastbound & Down," ''This is the End") has joined co-star Goggins ("The Shield," ''Justified," ''Six") to report on getting back to school for this series, and to account for how the show is in a class by itself.
For instance: The half-hour format and its reigning pair of knuckleheads suggest that "Vice Principals" is a comedy. Which it is. But isn't.
For all its outrageousness, the series is solidly grounded, and populated with deceptively well-rounded characters played by a solid cast including Busy Phillips, Shea Whigham, Kimberly Hebert Gregory, Georgia King, Sheaun McKinney and Dale Dickey, along with the superb McBride and Goggins.
"This is a complex character study of two morally obtuse human beings," Goggins sums up.
"We use the broad comedy just to trick the audience," says McBride, "to make the viewers think they're going to get the usual run-of-the-mill comedy — and then we sucker punch them with some real drama. Suddenly they have no idea what the show's going to take seriously and what it's NOT going to take seriously. And ultimately they don't really know what they WANT to have happen.
"Once we get the audience there, they're just putty in our hands, and we can take them anywhere."
Goggins says "anywhere" also applies to him as an actor inhabiting a character he doesn't need to pigeonhole.
"You turn yourself over to an imaginary set of circumstances," he says. "You can go anywhere with the role and not judge the outcome. It's no more complicated than that.
"But I don't like the word 'actor,' to be honest," he confides. "All of a sudden it means an occupation and that's a whole set of issues I just don't like to think about. I think 'storyteller' is more appropriate and accurate."
"I never look at anything I write in terms of a genre," says McBride. "I just don't think life is that way. Some of the funniest stuff can happen in the moments of greatest tragedy. We approach the show as if it's a drama and then we find the comedy within that.
"We'll even take punch lines OUT of the scripts. I want the jokes to hide themselves and emerge when you're least expecting them. I think our comedy works if these characters feel real and they're taking what's important to them SO seriously that it's funny — because they're SO invested in what they want."
What they've wanted since the series' first scene is the validation each is certain awaits him as principal of North Jackson High.
"Anyone watching this can see that running a school isn't going to fix the holes and inadequacies in somebody's life, but these guys don't understand that," says McBride. "These guys are racing to a finish line they think is going to reward them, but any viewer can see that winning won't give them what they need."
"Lee and Neal are morally reprehensible," Goggins declares. "But where they will get to on the other side of this journey is sublime, in my opinion, and at the root of what we all want — without giving anything away," he carefully adds.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org