Somewhere out there, comedy fans may exist who don't think Danny McBride is funny. There could possibly be one who hasn't ever heard of him, but it's far less likely. After a stellar virginal performance in 2006's Foot Fist Way, he's appeared in a high profile comedy every 6 months or so. His appeal is of the doofus-next-door variety, but with a natural timing and (mostly obscene) wit that uncannily make him the funniest person in every scene he plays. In a 1990's Hollywood, he might have been stuck playing zany sidekick to some hunky leading man, but in 2009, the mullet flag flies high. The same guys that brought Foot Fist Way (McBride, Ben Best, Jody Hill) now give us HBO's Eastbound & Down, which introduces Kenny Powers, an egotistical, foul-mouthed ex-Major Leaguer who comes closer than anyone on television ever has to depicting someone that could be in my family. And while I'm glad I don't have to see the guy at weddings and funerals, he's always welcome in my home via satellite, and thankfully now on DVD.
Forget My Name is Earl and Roseanne. Films and TV shows set in the South rarely portray anything resembling genuine everyday life. There are usually natural disasters, mobile homes, and extreme cases of racism involved; and those themes are used for comedy and drama alike. Eastbound and Down is set in Shelby, North Carolina, which is about as far as you can possibly be from my Louisiana hometown and still be considered in the same region. But it's relatable to a point of personal embarrassment.
Kenny Powers is of a certain breed of asshole particular to the South, one whose pride begets further pride, having little reason to exist in the first place. In Kenny's case, his over-the-top self-confidence spurns from a prodigal pitching arm. This arm won him a World Series as a rookie player, and then inevitably deteriorated. What didn't deteriorate was Kenny's bravado or disillusionment with fame and fortune. He retires in his mid-thirties and, having blown through all of his career wages through personal vices, is forced to move back to his hometown to work on his comeback. Specifically, he moves into the house of his brother Dustin (Deadwood's John Hawkes) and his family. He takes a job at Shelby's middle school, as a P.E. coach. To say he does this reluctantly is an understatement.
Powers isn't exactly a 180 from other characters McBride has played, but as the lead, his earnestness is allowed to expand and add dimensions. He's more crass than a closet full of stroke books, and insults any classification of person, but the show allows us to get an inkling of the self-esteem issues that fuel the constant rage. The series' tone shifts not quite clunkily between its overtly anarchic one-linerthons and the introspective moody moments, but Jody Hill says that this is how it was intended. And that's fine with me, though I never really, really feel for Powers, despite the pitch-perfect soundtrack telling me to. I never stopped laughing when it told me he was being funny though. Part of me wants to object to the obsessive cursing, but that feels like a ridiculous thing to say.
When he's in his car, Kenny listens to his extreme audio auto-biography "I'm Fucking In, You're Fucking Out" and takes lessons from it. While working at the school, he lords his faux celebrity around and tries to re-woo high school sweetheart April (the adorable Katy Mixon) from her school principal fiance Cutler (Andrew Daly). While at home, he troubles his brother and sister-in-law and teaches his nephews bad habits. He takes school teacher Stevie Janowski (morphed into by Steve Little) as his personal assistant. Stevie is borderline obsessed with Kenny, and is beyond funny; a lot of the humor comes from guessing whether he's gay, retarded, both, or neither. It's not easy or polite to explain. All the while, Kenny is trying to become Kenny " Fucckin" Powers again, with less than impressive results.
It is a six episode season, so it resembles more a British series than an American one. There are pronounced character arcs and progressions, so it isn't just six spec scripts cobbled together. I enjoyed the way it ended and resolved itself, a rarity for any show, and for that reason it both pleases and disturbs me that it was recently given a second season by HBO. The episodes include Kenny trying to hock his plentiful old merchandise on Ebay, the forementioned "will they fuck? won't they fuck?" romance with April, and a silly sort of feud with BMW dealership owner Ashley Schaeffer, played with no subtlety by Will Ferrell, who along with Adam McKay are responsible for getting the show to HBO. McBride and Ferrell are experts at playing around within a scene, and when Craig Robinson comes into the mix in a late episode, there is a gut-busting moment that is required viewing for anyone. And speaking of gut-busting...
It's a pretty loaded set, and for only $19.99 retail, is one of the cheapest things HBO has ever released. There is the typical "Making Eastbound & Down" (12:12). It's a decent behind the scenes talking heads gig. It logs the show's conception to filming process. There are adequate commentaries on three episodes from the creators and episode director David Gordon Green, who after making somber movies like George Washington (which I adored), is definitely smashing up the comedy scene with Pineapple Express and the upcoming Your Highness.
The rest of the features are gold. There is "Kenny Powers: Greatest Hits", an uncut look at a self-promotion video used in one episode. It reeks of intentional '80s quality, and could not be more amusing. There are two fake commercial's for Ferrell's Schaeffer Motors, which parody small town auto dealer ads. Again, could not be funnier. There is a "Stevie's Dark Secret" (7:30), an improv session between McBride, Best (the show's Clegg), and Little. It delves into subjects somehow even darker than the televised show's already black-as-coffee comedy. There is a deleted scene feature that's mostly alternate and extended takes rather than cut footage. Very good stuff here as well. But the crown jewel of the set is the thirteen minute long Outtakes feature, which caused no less than three spit-takes from this reviewer as I sipped from a cup of soup. A super extended take of the above-mentioned scene with Craig Robinson is worth half of the disc's price all on its own to me. It's something about watching men try to make other men laugh unexpectedly that just tickles my hetero bone.
The shows are shot and directed with total competence, and use scene-specific camera tricks accordingly for comedic and dramatic effect. The only issue I have, and I wonder if it's the same for everyone else, is that Disc 1 of the set is in full 16x9 widescreen, but Disc 2 has a 4:3 aspect. The back of the box says it's 16:9, so I'm not sure where things went wrong. The set sounds great, and subtitles are included.
I know it's not for everyone, and probably won't ring as true to someone from New York City or Montana, but Eastbound & Down is exactly what it needs to be. A slice of life from someone who grew up hating everything he grew up around, and got a taste of something better. Look at the newspapers and CNN (but not Fox News), a lot of stupid people who make it big end up blowing it big time. Kenny Powers is one of those people. He's just a lot funnier. And you want to pay to watch him screw up.