It’s difficult to write objectively about comedy. Every observation could boil down to ‘this scene was funny’ or ‘that comment was hilarious.’ I learned this firsthand when trying to write about one of this year’s biggest comedy hits: This is the End. What makes a show like Eastbound and Down different though, is that to call it a comedy is truly short-changing what has been a fascinating journey through 29 chapters. Buckeye and I have talked at length about how a good television show touches a spectrum of emotions from laughter to pathos. In the best crop of current hour-long dramas, all of them had us frequently laughing. And it’s not just comic relief characters like Huell and Kuby , but rather all the main players can be funny. Saul Goodman always has a funny quip up his sleeve, Hank typically delivers bad jokes, and Jesse has MAGNETS BITCH! On Mad Men, Matthew Weiner writes so many lines for Roger Sterling that I wish I had thought of myself that it makes me angry. God damn that man is witty. I could go on, but I’m not writing this to extol about the virtues of the best dramas on TV. I’m writing this because my thesis is that Eastbound & Down is a drama as well, albeit one with a higher dose of absurdity than most.
Work drugs. The show of course stars Danny McBride as Kenny Powers, who in the most simplistic terms is a fictional John Rocker. We met Kenny in Season 1 “a few shitty years” after his fall from the top. Kenny is now trying to pass an exam to be a substitute teacher–all the spoils from a lucrative baseball career have been squandered like so many athletes before him. Be it running himself out of each new baseball town with racist remarks, drugs draining his immense talent, or fighting someone pointing out his flaws, Kenny is his own worst enemy. Throughout the show’s run, Kenny writes the many chapters of an autobiographical screenplay that works as the classic American story of redemption. Now I’m by no means a star athlete, but I can imagine that not being able to recreate something you’ve been able to do thousands of times before is incredibly frustrating. That is Kenny Powers’ life, and that is why it takes a long time for him to succeed. He was a star and now he’s not. People will only tolerate so much when you can no longer throw high 90’s gas. He had April and then he fucked it up by either cheating on her or forgetting about her. He had something else and then he screwed that up and it’s gone. Up until the very end, this is the show’s format, which is not necessarily that of a comedy. Rather, it is the archetypal hero’s tale. Sure, it makes us laugh every episode, but Kenny is dealing with constant frustration because he’s not performing like the man he thinks he is. It is a fascinating look at someone coming to grips with his own humanity and the meaning of life.
At the end of the 3rd Season it seemed like Kenny had finally matured. He had won April back, had a family, and had finally put his baseball career behind him. When Season 4 begins though, obviously Kenny is not satisfied with this status quo. He quickly tires of suburban life. Looking in a mirror, this is not where he thought he’d be. In many ways, it harkens back to the show’s inception, as he’s now working at a used car dealership and is once again a loser (at least, the 19 year old Kenny would think he’s a loser). While he sits at a red light in his beat-up truck, a shiny lime green car pulls up next to him. Inside is a fully tatted-up badass with his chick, and he wants to race. Kenny ultimately backs down, and as the driver speeds off and yells “faggot!” Kenny calmly declares “I am not! A homosexual person.” Anyone can see from this exchange that the ‘You’re fuckin out!’ Kenny Powers is still lurking beneath the surface, only he’s been suppressed by his domestic duties.
A chance meeting with Guy Young (played perfectly villainous by guest star Ken Marino*) sets the main arc of the 4th season off by reminding Kenny that he is better than a normal person. He is meant for the spotlight; fame is his calling. And after all, isn’t unrest and boredom one of those quintessential American things? We all think we want the perfect family with the white picket fence, but when we actually have it, don’t we just want something else? Guy Young gives Kenny a glimpse of the life he thinks he wants, nay deserves, and once you have a taste of forbidden fruit you just want more. The writers picked the perfect way for Kenny to make a final ascent to the top, as he becomes what many ex-athletes strive to be: a talking head. Yes, the season contains many vintage Kenny Powers moments. Particularly Chapter 24, which takes place predominantly at a water park and is really a microcosm of the entire series (excessive spending, drugs, breaking rules, wavering about cheating, ultimate failure). Kenny appears to be the same spendthrift and self-destructive force he’s been since the beginning, and eventually it works again. He drives April to not just divorce, but a move across the country. After ousting Guy Young, he gets too cocky when running the show himself. Be it directly, or indirectly, he drives every other person on the panel of Sports Talk to ruin, and beloved Stevie almost commits suicide.
*I must say that Eastbound uses the guest stars flawlessly to create so many memorable characters. Besides Guy Young, the first person that comes to mind is obviously Ashley Schaffer. In one of Will Ferrell’s funniest performances, he plays a racist, rich, car salesman. Of course, I would be embarrassed if I did not include the plums clip in a discussion of the show. Besides Schaffer, there’s Matthew McConaughey as a scout who wants Kenny to suck his dream’s dick. Jason Sedeikis plays Kenny’s best friend Shane, who works as an enabler for Kenny’s worst drug tendencies. Craig Robinson as Reg Mackworthy (what a fuckin name!), his nemesis from the big leagues. And I haven’t even gotten to Sacha Baron Cohen who makes a legendary entrance.
Stevie really deserves an essay of his own, but I won’t write about him in much depth here. Suffice to say, he is a hilarious sidekick. He has the loyalty of a dog to Kenny, staying with him when no one else will, and his vulgarity always leaves me cracking up (especially talking about titties). He only seems to care about other people, frequently putting himself in harm’s way for Kenny or trying to hustle so his kids can have Christmas presents. Stevie is a guy you simply have to root for, and despite his obvious mental and physical limitations, always want to hear when he’s on screen.
Apologies for that quick tangent. Now if you look back at the roughly thousand words I have written, it doesn’t sound like Eastbound & Down is a comedy at all. It is a tale full of strife, love and loss, frustration, and redemption. Kenny Powers is the quintessential American story. He hungers for fame and all the things it supposedly brings: women, drugs, admiration, money. But by the end, he knows that all of those mean nothing if there’s no one to share them with. And in those final moments, when Kenny looks back on a fictional future, filled with absurdities like Alexander Skaarsgard and Lindsay Lohan as his children, I felt it was a time of solemn reflection. I was actually hurt when April gets shot, and I was sad when Kenny died as well. No plain comedy invokes that type of emotion. So that’s why I’m with Kenny when I look back on this show. I don’t know yet if it’s one of the all time greats because the harvest is still unknown, but Jody Hill and Danny McBride should assuredly be proud of their seeds.