AKIE BERMISS: Eastbound Is Renewed!
You Made Me Laugh – But What’s So Funny?
The best and most beautiful thing about HBO’s EASTBOUND AND DOWN is that its funny. Abhorrent. Disgusting. Juvenile. And profane. But damned funny. It snuck up on me, really. And apparently was something of a sleeper hit — which has sort of been the story for HBO this year. While I did have some advance notice about the show, I hardly had the wherewithal to look forward to it. It was by pure chance that I discovered episodes 1 and 2 were available from HBO On-Demand. And, choosing to watch, I found myself inexplicably: laughing. Out loud.
Not truly surprising: I’ve been a fan of the lead actor, Danny McBride for sometime now. A brilliant sideman character-actor who usually manages to steal a scene with ease, I was intrigued to see him play a lead role… even in an HBO comedy series. Of course, HBO has a history of airing ground-breaking comedies. I’m thinking, in specific, of Mr. Show With Bob And David. To which I owe a great deal of my formative comedic years.
And so, I shouldn’t have been surprised that Eastbound And Down was so good.
And yet — I was.
But its really almost misleading to call it a comedy. This is a series about a truly despicable character. A racist, homophobe, misogynist alpha-male. Who also happens to be an incredibly self-centered, out-of-shape, asshole. Like so many of the character-driven comedies that have gained popularity of the last few years, we somehow managed to find a place in our hearts for this jerk. Somehow the trials and tribulations of Kenny Powers (McBride’s character) have meaning to us. They draw us in. Though he has the moral relativism of a greek god when it comes to family, friends, women, and the law — we can still relate, I suppose.
What set’s Eastbound apart, however, is the edge. The threshold of what is acceptable from our flawed hero is pushed and pushed hard from the very beginning of the series. Where films like Anchorman or Talledega Nights (both movies starring one of Eastbound‘s executive producers, Will Ferrell) have, for lack of a better word, “dickish” leading characters — they are always somewhat benign in their badness. They’re are usually a little silly or stupid or, at the very least, critically naive. And so we in the audience are able to use our hearts to find a way to forgive their character faults. Eastbound‘s Powers is a bit less redeemable. His condition from the first credits of the first episode (down and out. traded from team to team, out of shape, and finally jobless and going home to mooch off of his brother) is completely his own fault. He’s squandered all his opportunities and is unapologetic about it — being more inclined to think fate has dealt him a crap hand.
And he’s not unaware of himself. He’s keenly self-aware. And he seems to be in possession of at least average (if not slightly above-average) intelligence. So we watch each week entranced by just what Kenny Powers will do to keep his world — no matter how small it gets — completely about him.
So I watched the entire six-episode season and felt pretty satisfied at season’s close. At that time there was no word about what would happen next and I wasn’t really interested. The first season is a perfect circuit. A complete narrative. A story of small redemptions and large failures. For all its absurdity, its primarily a human story and it affects us in that place where we consider our own humanities.
Since then, however, the show has been renewed for a second season with HBO. And now the circumstances are changed. Now this won’t be a sleeper show. This will be the highly anticipated second season of Eastbound And Down. I haven’t been able to find out anything about format. So I have somewhat troubling questions: will this be another six episode season? Another dark, comedic sestina? Or will we be assaulted by the full-length 15 episode HBO season? The season ends (SPOILER ALERT) with Powers driving out of down, ditching his reclaimed high school sweetheart, and headed down to Miami where there is no job waiting for him. So where do we pick up? Does he come back home again? Do we tell the same story all over again? Or does it take place somewhere else? Do we leave the backdrop of the South?
And the rub: What do we care about Kenny Powers anymore? I’m not saying that I don’t. There are certain relevant elements of his character that I feel are unresolved and I’d like to see them addressed. But the first season was such a wonderfully refreshing experience. So what now, friends? What now?
Well, in the end, I have to say I respect Will Ferrell and Adam McKay (executive producers) and I leave my entertainment in their hands. But they have the opportunity now to do something that transcends mere laughs. They’ve got us laughing. Now they can slip in something to transform us. Not saying they should go straight drama. But I’m looking to some of , say, Wes Anderson’s films (my favorites are Life Aquatic and Rushmore) for precedents. We can laugh out loud still be moved to tears at the right moment. Then the experience is analog. Its full. Its full-filling. And I’ve always suspected that there was a place in the mind of Will Ferrell that was afraid to go to that transcendent place. I admit, though, that after watching HBO’s broadcast of his Bush On Broadway (McKay also co-produces) — I think he might be ready to make that leap. Not to give undue credit to Ferrell and McKay. McBride and his collaborators, Jodi Hill and Ben Best, are really the creative forces behind the content of Eastbound And Down. And its really going to come down to their ability to write that will determine the fate of the rest of the show.
For the time-being: I just want to enjoy the immaculate beauty of the first season. Maybe it gets better. But if it gets worse — at least we’ll have episodes 1 – 6. And, as I said, if that’s all there ever is — I’m happy.
But when season two does come out — expect me to be an avid watcher and heavily opinionated about it.
It turns out bad people make for great television.
At first glance, Eastbound and Down appeared to be an entertaining, silly show, notable mostly because its place on HBO afforded it freedom to use the type of foul language and adult-themed humor normally reserved for the big screen. Produced by Will Ferrell, it featured relative unknown Danny McBride as Kenny Powers, a fallen former Major League pitcher whose biography bore striking similarities to John Rocker’s and whose character looked to be some conglomeration of Ferrell’s trademark boorish rednecks like Ricky Bobby and George W. Bush.
After the first episode, I even suggested to friends that it seemed like Ferrell had merely contracted out the role to a younger actor who’d be more believable in Powers’ quest to return to professional baseball. The premiere showed Powers returning to his white-trash roots in North Carolina and taking up as a substitute gym teacher in his old high school, a situation ripe for easy comedy.
But as the six-episode series progressed and revealed more layers of Powers’ character – each more vile than the previous one – it became abundantly clear that Eastbound and Down was more than a forum for drug humor and dick jokes, though there was always plenty of that to go around and it was all plenty funny.
Beneath the silliness, though, there developed an emotional timbre around Powers that was as difficult to place as it was easy to enjoy. The character was a Major League asshole in every sense of the term, but for some reason, he was one we identified with. And so, as Powers failed to come to grips with reality even while everyone around him tried earnestly to coach him into it, Eastbound and Down became a show about loss and unmet expectations and all the pathetic hilarity therein.
In the fourth episode, Powers finally wins over love-interest April, the hometown girl he left behind for big-league life but one he still appears to have genuine feelings for. But Powers, feeling the effects of the steroids he has taken to recapture his fastball, prematurely ejaculates. Immediately thereafter, he’s humiliated by April’s fiancé when their barbecue goes awry, so he turns to his Jet Ski.
The Jet Ski, it should be noted, operates as something of a symbol throughout: it represents the trappings of fame that Powers is unwilling to abandon even though he’s broke and has promised to sell it.
After blowing his chance with April and losing face in front of his friends, a fully clothed Powers cruises on the Jet Ski in a small local lake, scored by Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence,” in what is as surreal and face-slappingly hilarious a scene as I can remember in television comedy. It highlights both his desperation and his obstinacy, but mostly it’s just plain funny. Then, of course, the Jet Ski runs out of gas.
It was awesome.
The triumph is McBride’s, as a writer and performer, for crafting Powers so perfectly. Through all the pitcher’s big-leaguing and posturing, the audience only seldom sees evidence that he might not be as detestable as he seems – just enough to make Powers likable without ever drifting into the loutish-mook-with-a-heart-of-gold territory that has grown predictable in Ferrell’s recent efforts.
It is only in the season’s final scene, when Powers ditches April at a gas station instead of confessing that he’s been duped by a Major League scout’s false promises, that we begin to understand the character as a victim as much as a villain. Though most of it is self-inflicted, Powers bears the burden of a small-town hero, and McBride plays it perfectly.
The conclusion is a gut punch, a suitably miserable and ambiguous finish for a show whose themes demanded nothing less.
The show had its flaws, of course. Because it was the television equivalent of a profile piece, Eastbound and Down‘s heavy focus on Powers is understandable, but left many of the supporting characters underdeveloped. Some, like his drug-dealing hangabout Clegg, were good for laughs, but none had anything close to the depth of Powers. Others, like the sycophantic band teacher-cum-assistant Stevie, were merely annoying.
What might be most troubling, though, is that Eastbound and Down was recently picked up for a second season. Certainly there’s plenty of room for great comedy on television and the show is definitely that. But since the first six episodes appear to have been written with the neat (albeit messy) end in mind, I wonder how the writers will be able to reconcile what we learned about Powers in the final scene with what we need from him to drive the show: unabashed, self-serving contemptibility.
Still, if McBride and his crew squashed my doubts about the merits of the show itself, there’s good reason to believe they can do it again in the second season. It might take some careful handling, but I’ll keep faith that Kenny Powers will ride again – maybe not as a great pitcher, but certainly as an iconic character.