Kenny “Fucking” Powers is back. Fans of the HBO series can rejoice because “Eastbound & Down” makes its long-awaited return tonight after a brutal 15-month hiatus. The ongoing saga of burnout major league pitcher Kenny Powers (Danny McBride) whose bad behavior forced him into early retirement, the series began with Kenny returning to his hometown to become a middle school gym teacher. Living with his brother Dustin (John Hawkes) and sister-in-law Cassie (Jennifer Irwin), Kenny tries to win back his old girlfriend April (Katy Mixon) who’s engaged to his boss, Principal Cutler (Andrew Daly). Most of the jokes in the early episodes derived from the setup that his outsized ego is no match for this small town, while his teaching gig afforded the character plenty of opportunities to say horrible things to children. A network series probably would’ve worn out this premise for eight seasons, switching the jokes slightly each time, but basically keeping things as static as possible. ‘Eastbound’ tried this out for a mere six episodes before making the incredibly ballsy decision to throw it all out for season 2, which jettisoned most of its principle cast — save Kenny’s no. 2 Stevie (Steve Little) — for a storyline about Kenny hiding out in Mexico.
Below the border, Kenny joins a Mexican baseball team and reconnects with his father (Don Johnson) before being offered a chance at redemption in the form of an opportunity to play in the minor leagues back in the States. The finale threw yet another curveball as Kenny learns that he’s about to be a father, hinting at a new direction for the series. If season 2 ended on a moment of unexpected poignancy, season 3 once again hits the reset button, moving the action back to the USA with Kenny Powers returning as offensively immature as ever. In the opening, he strides onto the beach carrying a confederate flag weed leaf boogie board, telling an African American couple, “Your base tan’s looking nice. I’m hoping to get there myself this season.” So that should tell new viewers all they need to know about his character: each season may tackle a considerably different storyline but Kenny Powers’ idiotic behavior will be your constant. While it’s not initially clear how much time has passed since we last saw our hero, he’s now settled in “the redneck Riviera” Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and successfully pitching for the Myrtle Beach Mermen while completely shirking his responsibilities as a parent.
Things are going well with the Mermen until a Russian pitching phenom, Ivan (“MADtv” vet Ike Barinholtz), is brought on for Kenny to train and their relationship sours when Kenny realizes that this new pitcher may pose a threat to his livelihood. Conflicts also arise between Kenny’s former best friend Stevie and his new best friend Shane (Jason Sudeikis), a catcher for the Mermen. At home, Kenny tries to rekindle his romance with April while avoiding raising his child, a responsibility he’s neither suited for nor taken any effort to undertake. Despite a season-long detour away from its principal cast, the show has amassed quite a large ensemble, many of whom are back for season 3. Kenny’s baby mama April (Mixon), ex-Principal Cutler (Daly), brother Dustin (Hawkes) and sister-in-law Cassie (Irwin) are all back as well as bit players like eccentric KIA dealership owner Ashley Schaeffer (Will Ferrell) and baseball scout (Matthew McConaughey).
“Eastbound & Down” will, if for nothing else, be remembered as the ultimate version of the Danny McBride character. His career is marked with variations on the pompous, clueless redneck, but Kenny Powers is his singular achievement. McBride is consistently hilarious and his character’s off-the-cuff comments may be some of the most quotable on TV (though beware where you speak them aloud), but what makes him really fascinating are his weaknesses. Behind the bluster and confidence is actually a vulnerability. The stuff that doesn’t always work as well is the broad comedy. As much as we love Will Ferrell, we can’t say he’s done much for the show as a guest star, and in fact seems like he wandered in out of a different (and much broader) show, trying to one-up the ridiculousness of the lead. A wacko sequence during episode two involves Ferrell’s Ashley Schaeffer, a Southern plantation, kabuki and cannonballs. It’s as weird as it sounds and ends — in a possible nod to “Pineapple Express” — with the characters recounting the crazy events that have just occured. (Makes sense since ‘Pineapple’ director David Gordon Green helmed the episode.)
The series is the brainchild of childhood friends Ben Best, Jody Hill and McBride, who along with frequent director Green and writer Shawn Harwell make up the core creative team. And full credit belongs to them because there’s really nothing else like it on TV. Neither a prestige drama or “Entourage“-style comedy, it certainly stands out among HBO’s programming. Following the model of British television — and the U.K. “The Office” which is cited as an inspiration — each season is six or seven episodes (instead of the standard 12 or 13 for cable or 20+ for a network show) which is a smart move ensuring Powers doesn’t wear out his welcome. Though the showrunners have been fearless in giving each season its own arc they seem a bit hesitant to let things ever get too uncomfortable. What made “The Office” great was seeing David Brent hit rock bottom and having the tone of the show follow suit. And so far in the series, we’re always laughing with Kenny Powers, but that may be part of the problem.
As co-creator/director Jody Hill put it, “There are the people that get the joke of what we’re trying to do and the people who see themselves as Kenny Powers.” But by allowing Kenny to skate by relatively consequence free, they may be sending the wrong message to their audience. For example, a featured review on the IMDb page for the show reveals it might not be hitting its intended target. “It has all the requirements for any sports fan, beer, babes, boobs and plenty of testosterone to pass around.” Mission: accomplished? The most interesting parts of the show are usually the darker, more unexpected bits. The coke binges, the unexpected music cues (Kurt Vile, Ennio Morricone, Medeski Martin & Wood) and the tonal switches like the final moments of the season 2 finale which are surprisingly moving and perfectly executed. (This writer can remember being a bit stunned watching them back in 2010.) If they were willing to take these leaps into dramatic territory a little more often, the show could be truly great.
Originally set to be the third and final season, recently the showrunners have stayed mum on an end date for the show, leaving the door open for another go round should the mood strike them. Should this end up being the final season, it’s off to a good start. The cliffhanger at the end of the first three episodes (we’ll review the second half of the season in the coming weeks) suggests that there might be some real consequences headed their way, but whether the show wants to play them strictly for laughs or not is yet to be seen. If the audience is just looking to keep things silly, Kenny Powers fans will no doubt love seeing their hero return. But if the show can make room for a little more pathos among the back half of the season, it’ll be a curveball the crowd will respect them for later. [B]
“Eastbound & Down” airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on HBO.