There have been plenty of obstinate and hopelessly self-involved male characters at the center of popular TV programs, but it's safe to say there has never been one quite like Kenny Powers, the struggling baseball player played by Danny McBride on HBO's "Eastbound & Down." Often a delirious exercise in raunchy jokes about the male libido, "Eastbound" is remarkably hard to categorize. Although technically a half-hour comedy, it can easily shift gears mid-episode and turn into a sad, introspective drama before reemerging with a renewed wacky energy.
To truly understand the roots of "Eastbound," you have to turn to its creators' other work. The show — which concludes its third and supposedly final season on Sunday night — is the product of an ongoing collaboration between a close-knit group of former college buddies from the North Carolina School of the Arts, including Ben Best, McBride and Jody Hill (another NCSA alumnus, David Gordon Green, serves as a consulting producer and has directed three episodes each season).
Hill, who directs most episodes of "Eastbound," first made his feature-length debut with the 2006 Sundance hit "The Foot Fist Way," starring McBride as a proto-Kenny Powers type vainly attempting to assert his karate mastery. That movie landed distribution through Will Ferrell and Adam McKay's production company, which also produced "Eastbound." Hill's next project, the 2009 studio effort "Observe and Report," starred Seth Rogen in a darkly irreverent turn from his usual affable stoner roles.
But the last two years of Hill's career have been all about "Eastbound." The third season displays considerable ambition, with Kenny stumbling through the minor leagues while attempting to take on fatherly duties for his illegitimate son, at one point trying to ditch the infant with his equally foul-mouthed mother (Lily Tomlin in a brilliant if all-too-brief supporting role). On Sunday, "Eastbound" finally lurches to a halt so that Hill and his colleagues can focus on other things — or does it? Hill took a crack at explaining the reasoning behind walking away from a popular series and why this might not be the last we hear from Kenny Powers.
Now that the third season has ended, are you planning on taking a break?
Well, I'm doing this new movie that hasn't been announced yet. The show's awesome but definitely takes up all my time. I've been able to do commercials and small things like that, but haven't been able to make a feature. The last two seasons we basically rolled into each other with two months of downtime in between them. Now we're definitely taking a break.
About a year ago, you and Danny started saying publicly that the third season of the show would be its last. But HBO hasn't confirmed that. Can you set the story straight?
[laughs] I don't know if I'll give you a straight story, but we always pictured the show as lasting three seasons. It's a kind of trilogy. I think we achieved what we were trying to do when we set out. But I also think "Eastbound" is such a character piece that it could be one of those things where you follow [Kenny Powers] at different points in his life. It doesn't rely on some big plot point so much that you could never do "Eastbound" again. Right now, we're not sure. We think it's going to be the last one, but never say never.
At this point, do you need the green light from HBO before even considering another season?
They definitely want it. It's all about if we want to do it or not at this point.
How long do you have to decide?
Um… I don't know. (laughs) We've been lucky with "Eastbound" in that they've afforded us some luxuries in terms of being creative and how we want to approach it. HBO's been cool about all that. Right now, I'm going to go make a movie and Danny's probably going to do the same thing. I guess we'll see where we're at after that.
The decision has been made not to show the season finale of the show to any members of the press in advance of the air date. I take this to mean you must kill off Kenny Powers. Otherwise, why the secrecy?
Well, we can't tell you. [laughs] There are definitely some things we're going to reveal in the next episode, but I can't tell you what the secret is.
Seriously. I wouldn't put it past you to kill of Kenny Powers.
I wouldn't put it past us, either. It'll make sense once you've seen it.
Your first feature, "The Foot Fist Way," garnered cult status and won you acclaim from Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, which paved the way for the bigger projects you've taken on since then. Did you face any sort of new pressure once you were involved with a TV show with a significant following?
I can confidently say no on that one. We really set out for a three-season story, basically a trilogy. It's like our redneck "Godfather." Me and Danny were shaking hands about this the other day — it's been a struggle, knowing we have an audience, not to change our game plan. But I think it was important from the very beginning for us to execute what we set out to do. Back in the day, we talked about how if we could make the show on our own terms, and somehow we were able to pull it off, it would be something we would be proud of. And we were definitely able to do that.
But even though we were able to do that, it's definitely sad for us. We love the character and we love our jobs. Don't get me wrong: I think there are some people who just want to hear Kenny Powers say dick jokes and stuff. But I also think there are a lot of people who get the show out there. That's important. I know that a lot of people struggle with their work to find that, and we have it with "Eastbound." So there are definitely mixed emotions, but we set out to execute a plan of three seasons to tell a complete story and I'm proud that we did that.
It's telling to compare the response you received for "Observe and Report," your sole studio movie, with "Eastbound." While the movie had its defenders, a lot of people just didn't get it, and media was largely hijacked by an ongoing discussion of whether or not one scene constituted date rape. "Eastbound" has had more time to grow an audience for its offbeat humor.
"Observe and Report" is a movie I'm really proud of, but yeah, when it came out, there was all this backlash and it struggled with ticket sales. With studio movies, it's like you're watching a boxing match. That was just a weird thing to me. Right now, it's been out for a couple of years, and the people who like it really like it; the people who don't never will. Certainly, there isn't that immediacy to their reactions the way there was opening weekend. That's a really cool feeling — the small amount of time that's passed since it came out has been really kind to that movie.
With "Eastbound," nobody really watched the first season. It wasn't until the show was off the air for almost a year and a half that whoever liked it starting telling other people about it. Then they stole it online or whatever — it just spread. Now people are able to digest what we're doing each week.
I think if you come into "Eastbound" cold, it might take you a second and you might not get it. But I think TV takes some of the importance off of the one chance the way it is with movies. I can think of that with other shows. "Mad Men" might make a terrible movie, but I love that fucking show. You have to digest it and learn to like the characters before they feel like people you know. That format is really cool, especially when you get to work with a network like HBO, which lets you do what you want creatively.
The implication of what you're saying is that you want to make Kenny Powers a likable guy — not the easiest task with a character who says pretty arrogant things more often than anything else. I can't think of another show with a main character so hard to like.
It's like taking a road trip with somebody you don't like, but the longer you drive on that trip, the more you understand them. He might be an asshole, but at the end of the day, there's something you kind of like about him and what he's about. I have friends like that — when people meet them, they just hate them, but I've known these guys for 10 years and understand what makes them tic: "Yeah, he's an asshole but he's funny and nice sometimes."
Danny is now so closely associated with Kenny Powers that it's hard to watch him in anything else without thinking about that character. What do you think distinguishes Kenny from other characters Danny has played?
I would say that, with all the bravado that Kenny has, he's also sensitive. I know that sounds dumb, but he's like a cry baby. He's easily offended, easily hurt. We actually feel bad for him. He does so much shitty stuff to everybody else, but I still think that you forget about it because you know him so well and feel bad for him. Maybe it's his vulnerability. Danny's great at that, by the way. I don't know anyone else who can take a blowhard and make you like him.
Last week's episode ended with Kenny holding a dinosaur dildo. But that was a toy he made for his kid, and the kid just went away with his mother, so it was a surprisingly downbeat and almost touching conclusion. Do those kind of moments surprise you?
I don't know. You set up these things and they just have a way of working their way in. We do write jokes. I don't want to act like we don't. But the way we structure the scenes are just like a drama, and then we put jokes into it. We think it's funny that Stevie (Steve Little) puts on a wig to dress up. So what you have is essentially a dumb wig joke. But what he's putting into it is a lot of meaning. He's doing this to get his girl back. It's the same thing with the dildo. We think it's funny, but we try to play things sort of realistically: It's not just, "Here's a dildo," it's "Here's a dude and a wacky dildo joke in a realistic way."
I think it also speaks to the wiggle room you have on TV now. You probably could not have made an explicit dildo joke on TV a decade ago.
We just write what we think is funny and HBO lets us do it.
They've never censored you?
There was an issue with one show we wrote during the first season. Back then, HBO was more nervous because they didn't know what the show was. We wrote this episode where Kenny gets his car stolen and Craig [Robinson] gets kidnapped by devil worshippers. HBO freaked out because they thought these were supposed to be real devil worshipers, like Charles Manson or something. Really, it was like redneck dudes wearing baggy raver clothes who were into "Star Wars" as well as the devil. It ended with Danny bringing one of the devil worshippers to church and trying to cure him on the altar.
So this is basically how you have to open the fourth season.
Yeah, exactly! We're going to make that episode at some point. But that was the only one they ever really protested. They still joke about that episode whenever we write something they're not comfortable with. They're like, "Is this the devil worshipper episode?"
Has your work on the show had any impact on your production company, Rough House?
"Eastbound" opens us to doing different things. It's a comedy that breaks all the rules that TV comedies adhere to. If anything, it lets us have a little more creative freedom. People want to see a different take from us. Nobody comes to us and ask for an odd couple NBC show. And we're very protective of our image. We don't want to come out with some cookie cutter shit because there's a lot of money involved.
Assuming the show goes away for a while, what's next for you?
I'm just writing this feature now. I want to tell you about it, man, I just can't yet. It's not a comedy. I'll say that.
With that project plus David Gordon Green's upcoming "Suspira" remake, it sounds like you guys are making a coordinated move away from comedy.
I never wanted to become a comedy director. I made "Foot Fist Way" and some doors opened. I'm trying not to limit myself to a genre.