“Okay, I can’t take you seriously right now because you’re dancing with a robot.”
The third episode of what is rapidly evolving into my favorite season of “Eastbound and Down” deals primarily with the relationship between Kenny Powers (Danny McBride) and his wife April (Katy Mixon). From the opening scene in the parking lot after last week’s triumphant “Sports Sesh” appearance to the final moments with Kenny and April laying in the early morning sun in a hotel room, everything this week examines why these two people are together and why it works.
One of the things I love most about “Eastbound” is the way they pick the still for each week’s opening title, and this week’s was a complete winner. Katy Mixon’s smile and her brilliantly dismissive “See you later, pumpkin!” in the midst of Steve Little’s insane hand-shattering meltdown pretty much sums up right away how much deranged fun this season has been so far.
And if there’s not a gallery of every one of those title card images, there should be. Get on that, Internet.
I didn’t realize until now that this is the story of someone struggling with his addiction. For all the drugs and abuse that he’s ever piled onto his system, none of that ever seemed to be the problem. Now it’s apparent that it is fame that he needs and craves, and watching everyone start to stress out about what even a hint of fame is going to do to Kenny is like watching a family freak out because someone just bought a bag of coke. They know what’s coming, and it terrifies them in a very tangible way.
So the question this season appears to be two-fold. Can Kenny Powers turn that one TV appearance into a real media comeback? And if he does, will he survive it with his family and his soul intact?
I can’t believe I’m writing about Kenny Powers even having a soul, but that’s what this season has managed to accomplish. I believe he genuinely loves April. I believe he wants to live his family life. I think he has never been a good person, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible for him. It wouldn’t work if he were married to 99% of the women on the show, but April’s different. April seems to be wired exactly right for Kenny, and it’s been true since the first year of the show. He may drive her completely insane, but he also gets deep under her skin and she is unable now to imagine life without him.
April cuts loose when she cuts loose. That’s one of the reasons she and Kenny are a sort of scary mix. He can absolutely push her buttons, and when she starts drinking at the water park, we see how easy it is for her to tip over from “Having a good time” to “shooting beer bongs with total strangers.” She gets hammered. She is barely functional by the time Kenny carries her up to the room, and he seems like he’s being a good husband at that point.
Then he leaves the kids.
Sure, I laughed as he’s discussing what to turn on for them on PPV. “How about ‘G.I. Joe: Retaliation’? I didn’t really appreciate it the first time I saw it, but upon repeat viewings, it really holds up.” But then he slips out of the room and goes downstairs to party.
I’m fascinated by the use of Tim Heidecker. He’s turning into a go-to representation of a sort of formless, gooey white dude. He takes a gnarly punch to the face, too, and he never sells the obvious version of the joke. I love that in “Bridesmaids,” he basically doesn’t speak. He’s wallpaper, dull as dirt. The movie has no opinion on him because he’s utterly irrelevant to the story. It’s all about Wiig and Rudolph and what happens between them, and he’s just the thing that sets the plot mechanics in motion. Here, he seems like the exact opposite of Kenny in almost every way.
Ultimately, Kenny does the right thing… or does he? Is there any room for that to be a matter of degrees? I think the moment he walks out of the hotel room with April passed out and his kids sitting there watching TV, he’s wrong. But on his sliding scale, is it a major victory just for him not to screw the dude’s sister once the party moves to someone’s room?
And when he does go down the hall and gets rejected, I can’t recall ever being more disappointed by him. When you’re just a piece of crap and nothing you do matters because you answer to no one, it doesn’t matter. But when you are trying and you stumble, it hurts in a very different way. And it doesn’t just hurt you. That shot of Toby in bed watching his father the next morning is upsetting. What does he think happened the night before? And how much does he really understand? He was the one shaped by that experience from last season, after all. He knows that his father favors his sister completely, and I’m curious what he remembers about his mother abandoning him. Even when the show is funny and outrageous, like when Kenny is giving his family their gifts and he gives Toby a wolf, there are things going on under the surface that are very real and very difficult, and that’s what continues to make “Eastbound and Down” such an impressive surprise each week.
I find myself thrilled by what Jody Hill and David Gordon Green and Danny McBride are doing with this season, and the way the show has become something more genuine than joke is one of the year’s most unexpected evolutions.
“Eastbound and Down” airs Sunday nights on HBO.