Danny McBride’s committed performance anchors an excellent ‘Eastbound & Down’ season premiere

I honestly never expected to see Kenny Powers again.

The end of the third season was such a decisive conclusion, giving him the happy ending that he needed instead of the one he wanted, that I figured we were done with him as a character. After all, heading into that season, Jody Hill and Danny McBride and David Gordon Green all seemed relatively sure that they were done with him, and if they felt like they were finished, who were we to argue?

The very end of that final episode, though, threw so many big ideas at us so quickly that it went from feeling like the finish of something to feeling like a giant challenge. Once your lead character fakes his own death to walk away from his dream life in professional sports, can he really just go home and live a happy domestic life?

Yeah, right.

This season’s first episode had the misfortune of being aired on Sunday night, when pretty much everyone’s full attention was focused on the end of “Breaking Bad.” I hope people double back, though, because “Eastbound and Down” came out swinging with their first episode, checking in on suburban dad Kenny Powers, and from the very start of the episode, with him sitting in his car on the way to work, happily observing to himself, “I love NPR,” it’s obvious that things have changed for Kenny.

It’s amazing how even today, even in an age where pretty much every extreme has been captured on film, something as simple as language can still retain the power to shock. The greatest strength of Kenny as a character comes from his absolute lack of restraint in how he speaks, how he thinks, how he parties. There’s not a thought that passes through his head that he won’t vocalize. Watching him struggle to live this family life, he is in obvious pain. He hates his boss. He hates being anonymous. And more than anything, he hates that April (Katy Mixon) has eclipsed him. The script he’s writing (complete with on-set bloopers over the end credits) is one more chance for him to rewrite his own mythology, something that has been important to him since the first episode of the series. Kenny doesn’t just want to live a noteworthy life; he also wants to be the one who decides how that story is told.

There were so many golden observations in this episode. When he’s talking to his kids about movies, he asks if they know what a motion picture is. “Human Centipede,” answers his adorable little four year old daughter Shayna (Emma Salzman). “They ate poo poo.”

“And someone had to write that they ate poo poo,” Kenny explains. “That’s what a screenplay is. That’s what your dad just did.” You know the old saying that you love all your kids equally? Well, that is not the case for Kenny. He seems to have grown permanently annoyed with Toby, who was an infant in season three, while he dotes on Shayna. Watching him try to be the perfect husband and swallow all of the impulse control problems that define him, you know it can’t last, and just seven minutes into the episode, we see how Kenny’s just wearing a happy face while, in private, he struggles with his rage, throwing tiny little passive-aggressive fits that involve smashing a vase or mooshing the donuts.

McBride gets better each time he returns to the role, and I love what he’s doing this season. There is real anger here, just below the surface, and I love that he never plays it as a joke. There’s a moment during a dinner party where he breaks out a racist impression of another couple’s adopted kid that is deranged, and the aforementioned mooshing of the donuts is played like a beat in a horror film, complete with creepy score.

One of the things that I find fascinating about the series is the way it offers up a very different portrait of the modern South than most films. Jody Hill, Ben Best, David Gordon Green, and McBride are doing their best to capture the South the way they see it now, not the way it has been traditionally handled, and it’s a fascinating portrait, without apology.

Little by little, Kenny’s resolve gets chipped away over the course of the episode. He runs into Guy Young, an old teammate played by Ken Marino who wants to talk about the glory days, telling profane and horrifying Kenny Powers stories. Kenny tries to paint a happy picture of his life, saying at one point, “The only drug I get off on is my wife and kids, and I get fucked up on them every single night.” He’s got no poker face, though, and it’s obvious he is very close to a major crack-up.

Katy Mixon has gotten better and better over the course of the series, and she is so sweet, so happy, that it makes Kenny’s impending meltdown even worse. “That places smells bad inside. It smells like dog shit and pot stickers,” he offers after he marches out of an awards ceremony for April, and even when she sees how angry and unhappy he is, she still tries. She loves Kenny in a very direct way, even with his faults and flaws.

Marino’s speech at an AIDS fundraiser is a perfect example of what I like about the writing on this series. These characters are not self-aware. They do their best with what they have, but a dim bulb is a dim bulb, no matter how noble their intentions. Kenny has an “It’s A Wonderful Life” moment at the afterparty, realizing just how much he gave up when he decided on his family instead of his career, and it ends up being a turning point. Kenny gets up the next day and realizes he can’t do it anymore. He can’t be the Kenny Powers anyone else wants him to be. He has to be the Kenny Powers that he is inside. A rejected loan application is the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and that one last disappointment sets him off.

From the moment Kenny floors it to drag race the tattooed jackass who insulted him at the start of the episode to the end of the episode, it is one long expression of Kenny’s id, finally off the leash and free. His epic speech to his boss as he quits is pure Kenny Powers, complete with graphic sexual metaphor and self-aggrandization, and it leaves the rest of this season as a giant question mark. How do you rebuild your life after you were dead to the world? He walked away so completely that I can’t imagine how the process of returning to baseball even begins. The version of “Put A Little Love In Your Heart” that plays at the end of the episode is perfectly utilized, especially considering how crazy that tackle box full of drugs is. And what is it that we see Kenny digging up in his backyard?

I guess I’ll have to tune in next Sunday to find out, and I can’t wait. Here’s hoping we have an epic season ahead of us. It was a great start.

“Eastbound and Down” airs Sunday nights on HBO.