Kenny Powers is perhaps the single most perfect distillation of what it is that Danny McBride does best as a comic performer, and when “Eastbound and Down” finishes the eight-episode season that it is about to start airing on HBO, I have a feeling we’re going to be looking at one long uniquely American comedy epic that stands alone as a singular accomplishment in television.
That’s not to say that I think this is the single funniest show ever made, or that I think it innovates in a way no other show does. It’s just that I can’t think of any other character who is as morally and intellectually repellant as Kenny Powers who I can’t keep my eyes off of. The first season of “Eastbound and Down” suggested a certain sort of sitcom shape in telling the story of a washed-up major league pitcher who is forced to return to his home town to become a gym teacher. If this were a standard sitcom, even a very good one, the show would have established that world, a stock set of characters, and then started wringing comedy out of slight variations in storytelling every week.
“Eastbound” is about something larger, though, the overall spiritual journey of a man who shows no outward signs of self-awareness or soul. Kenny Powers is every terrible part of the American identity turned up and turned loose, and for that reason, his struggle towards self-definition is compelling. He is a fairly terrible person in the way he treats others and in his sense of entitlement, but he’s recognizable. Kenny is all bluster, a facade he puts on to try to cover for the yawning existential fear that is part of his daily life. He is what we are most afraid of being, someone who is finished before they even really begin, a waste of the talent he’s been given. He is the curdled American dream, and he knows it deep down inside, which is why he spends every waking second overcompensating like mad.
I loved the modest ambition of the show’s first season, when it felt like if that was the whole story they were going to tell, that would be fine. Kenny’s big “triumph” at the end of that season is practically a hate crime, and I laughed so hard the first time I saw it that I got a headache. It’s insanity, but of a low-grade variety. The second season expanding the Kenny Powers story into something more epic, something darker and weirder, and introduced a lot of new players into the mix. Taking Kenny out of his home environment and dropping him in Mexico led to some truly uncomfortable material, and it didn’t just enrich his character, but all the characters on the show.
And now, with the final eight-episode season that begins airing on HBO this coming Sunday night, February 19, I believe they have topped themselves and launched what could be one of the most insane runs of episodes for any comedy on TV. It is truly dangerous material, and I love that Jody Hill and David Gordon Green, the two filmmakers who directed the three episodes I saw, are willing to let this show get as strange and as disturbing as they do. It’s sort of breathtaking to see just how off-the-rails crazy the show gets, and how fast it gets there.
I want to tread lightly in terms of story material, but as you can see from that photo, Kenny is indeed grappling with fatherhood in this season, and he is not handling it well at all. It would be easy for them to play this as a sort of foul-mouthed “Three Men & A Baby” riff, but instead, it feels like Toby, Kenny’s son, is in genuine peril every single second he’s with his father. Katy Mixon returns this year as April, who may or may not be Kenny’s soul-mate. I would say she’s better than Kenny, but there’s a sequence in episode one where we see April cut loose and we are reminded that there is a history between these two, and it’s based on a mutual personality type. She can pretend she is repelled by Kenny all she likes, but when she lets her guard down, she can match him in bad behavior, and it’s glorious to witness.
New faces this year include Ike Barinholtz as Ivan, a Russian pitcher who is being groomed by the same Myrtle Beach team that Kenny plays for, and Jason Sudeikis as Shane, who is Kenny’s new best friend, the catcher on his team. We’ll also be seeing the return of Will Ferrell as Ashley Schaeffer, one of the scariest characters Ferrell has ever played, and Steve Little as Stevie Janowski, Kenny’s much put-upon sidekick. The show is fleshed out by characters like Dustin (John Hawkes), Kenny’s brother, and his wife Cassie (Jennifer Irwin), and I like that they seem to exist in a far more normal universe than Kenny except for those brief moments where he rolls into their orbit and introduces some random sociopathy. Even Andrew Daly shows up again, although briefly in what I saw, so this really does feel like they’re bringing everything around again and tying up the show’s various narrative loose ends.
What scares me about this season is that they start it at such a fever pitch that I can’t imagine how they sustain that energy for five more episodes. The third one I saw ends on a cliffhanger that is actually sort of upsetting. Even though Kenny Powers is totally demented, I find myself rooting for him to actually evolve, to become a better person. That’s not the kind of humor this is, though, so I’m curious to see which way this plays out. Jody Hill, Ben Best, and Danny McBride have demonstrated conclusively that they are not above taking us all the way down with a character, and they don’t seem married to the happy ending, so I find myself genuinely invested at this point.
I wish I could say more, but it wouldn’t be fair. It wouldn’t be fair to the directors, the writers, the actors, or anyone associated with this show. I don’t want to rob you of the same moments of “OH MY GOD THEY AREN’T REALLY DOING THAT, ARE THEY? OH MY GOD YES THEY ARE!” that I experienced over and over as I watched these three episodes. They went places I never would have expected, they took chances I never would have dared, and they entertained me in ways I’m almost embarrassed to admit. I love that you can’t quote Kenny Powers without sounding like a monster, because it spares us from hearing hundreds of awful impressions of what it is that McBride does.
And, yes, his performance here is perhaps the best thing I’ve seen from him. He perfectly encapsulates a sort of ego-free comedy that I like, where you can’t be concerned with looking good or being a hero. Physically, spiritually, and emotionally, Kenny Powers is just plain damaged, and McBride takes joy in poking Powers in all his soft spots, laying bare those worst impulses and ideas. It’s impressive work, and I think you can only create a character like this if you’re willing to spend time with them. We’re something like seven hours into the Kenny Powers saga at this point, and it saddens me to know it’s coming to an end soon, even as it excites me because I think they’re going to pull off something special with it.
“Eastbound and Down” begins its final eight-episode season this Sunday night on HBO.