By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 14, 2009
"Eastbound & Down" doesn't just push the envelope: It shoves it right in your face. And Kenny Powers, the onetime wonderboy of baseball whose fictional story this is, goes beyond political incorrectness to political imbecility, uttering remarks that would sound amazingly ignorant even back in, say, 1957. Or 1947. Or 1847. Or maybe just plain A.D. 47.
Actually, Kenny's kind of stupidity is really timeless.
Working something of a miracle, Danny McBride, who plays Kenny and is one of the creative talents behind the show premiering tomorrow on HBO -- the most recklessly funny comedy of the year -- makes us kind of like Kenny Powers. We certainly don't like it when, while still in baseball, he uses the coarsest of ethnic and sexual slurs, or when he remembers how he and his brother used to beat up "re-tards" when they were kids. And yet strangely enough, we can't really hate him, either.
He's not a character, he's a cross section of inhumanity, a bumblingly insensitive clod who remains totally oblivious to his own offensiveness. Kenny's idea of an epiphany is to suddenly remember "I am better than everybody else," a fact of life that had momentarily slipped his mind. He's pathetic and doesn't know it, and as McBride plays him, that comes across as a twisted form of nobility.
Even now that he's definitively down-and-out, reduced for the foreseeable future to working as a substitute gym teacher at Jefferson Davis Middle School in North Carolina (where the series was filmed), Kenny takes solace and comfort in his natural-born superiority.
The way Kenny, in fact, takes a litany of self-help cliches and bromides and perverts them to his own heinous purposes is one slick sick joke on that whole egocentric theology. In the car, Kenny listens to a morale-boosting tape he made years earlier, one in which he repeats the mantra "I am better than everyone else in the world." And of course the elegant irony of it is that he's worse than almost everyone else in the world, especially now that Saddam Hussein's no longer with us. Or even Mr. Blackwell, either.
Every day in Kenny's life is a challenge. It's heaven daring him to plumb a new depth -- and darned if he doesn't bring it off. Good grief, the guy even litters, dropping beer cans out his car window, a bit of antisocial animalism that even the tackiest trailer trash now sees as abhorrent.
At a few points in the comedy, Kenny's dialogue and phrasing sound familiar -- as when he insults his brother's wife and then confesses: "Instantly I regret saying that. That was a horrible thing to say," without experiencing actual remorse. Who does that sound like? Like Will Ferrell as Ricky Bobby, the fabulously funny egomaniac NASCAR driver in "Talladega Nights," probably the funniest of all Ferrell's comedies, and one which even managed a moment or two of poignancy.
Sure enough, Ferrell is one of "Eastbound & Down's" executive producers, along with his longtime partner in comedy crime, Adam McKay. These boys are among the brightest and most original members of the Judd Apatow school of caustic comedy. Some of the movies that have resulted have been way less than brilliant, but there's a winning, vox-populi tone to much of the comedy that has elements of Frank Capra and Preston Sturges lurking within, even though it has no qualms about stooping to potty humor or the occasional unashamedly dumb joke.
In the opening moments of the pilot, we follow the crash-course trajectory of Kenny's spectacularly self-destructive career. One minute he's pitching at 101 mph and is the hero of the game; the next, Atlanta and subsequent teams have traded him, his pitching speed is down to 83, and a sports announcer is delivering the eulogy on a career "that once showed so much promise." And now? Now "you can feel the sun going down on it," the guy says.
But Kenny is self-delusional to an almost heroic degree; that may be another reason we are drawn even to his repulsiveness. His beer belly hangs out over his jeans and his face looks as if it might well weigh 25 pounds, and yet he still imagines his to be a body beautiful, one no sane woman could ever resist. One eloquently unappetizing shot with zero dialogue speaks volumes: Kenny's in the shower, and his tan lines reveal that he wears a thong bikini when out lounging in the sun.
Contributing substantially to the comedy are John Hawkes as Dustin Powers, the elder brother who tries to tolerate Kenny's presence as a guest in his home, and Jennifer Irwin as Cassie Powers, Dustin's Bible-quoting wife and Kenny's natural enemy. Andrew Daly brings originality to the slightly tired character of the officious school principal -- described in the show's Web site (which is also funny) as "a classic example of a guy who took a job at a high school so he'd never have to leave."
Unusually ambitious for a half-hour comedy, the premiere features a wild jet-ski ride by Kenny and a topless tootsie, and a fantasy musical number that adds a bit more sweetness to Kenny's character. He's never lovable, he's barely tolerable, but many of the things he does and says are frighteningly recognizable. He's a kind of Everyjerk, and when a long day of blustering and cursing is done, he can be heard weeping pitifully in his bed.
"Eastbound & Down" finds true triumph in utter failure.
Eastbound & Down (30 minutes) debuts tomorrow night at 10:30 on HBO.