[21 January 2013]
PopMatters Features Editor
You’ve got to either love Eastbound & Down or hate it, but if last season left you wanting more, there’s plenty of it on this two-disc Blu-ray set. It’s got every episode, with commentary, plus the usual bloopers, but best of all is the 40 or so minutes of deleted scenes, which make you wish the show was either a little longer or had more episodes per run.
In what was supposed to be the final season of this balls-to-the-wall HBO dramedy, incorrigible asshole and perpetually down-on-his-luck ball player Kenny Powers comes to terms with fatherhood when the infant son he abandoned gets left on his doorstep. Soon, he’s duct-taping the kid’s ass in lieu of diapers and schlepping him around inside a backpack, trying to find a place to dump the brat so he can get back to working on his major league pitching comeback.
Meanwhile, his own deadbeat dad (Don Johnson) shows up to complicate things with his mom (Lily Tomlin) and he has to rescue his assistant Stevie (Steve Little) from being sold into prostitution by a longhaired albino who runs a South Carolina Kia dealership (Will Ferrell). Get all that?
There’s a lot going on in the insane saga of Powers, which is why the deleted scenes are so great. In addition to filling out details missing from the original episodes (details that had me going, “Wait, why is he doing that?”), there are a couple of comedic moments that I found funnier than the scenes they used in the show. And then there’s the beautiful, tragicomic spectacle of Stevie shaving his entire head, including eyebrows, which only gets about five seconds in the episode it’s in.
If you’re not familiar with the show, just think of Eastbound & Down as a Will Ferrell-produced manchild comedy on ‘roids and blow. Main character Powers, played to the deadpan hilt by show creator and chief writer Danny McBride, is the ultimate American antihero. He’s arrogant, absurd, racist and crude. Incapable of self-reflection, Powers relies on unholy ambition and a truck full of redneck ‘tude to cheat his way back to stardom, before he inevitably falls on his face and has to climb his way back up the ladder again. It’s a neat trick, casting this awful man as the perennial underdog, because it engenders just enough sympathy to get viewers to sort-of root for him while laughing uncontrollably at his shameful antics.
Last season found Powers in Mexico, pitching for a losing team under the moniker “La Flama Blanca”, gambling on cockfights and getting wasted on tequila and cocaine. This year, he’s doing essentially the same thing in South Carolina when his love interest from the first season, April (Katy Mixon), shows up to repay him for ditching their son on her at the end of season two. Mixon appears only briefly in seasons two and three, and it’s a shame she couldn’t be in more episodes, as the chemistry between her and Kenny was vital to the success of the first season. Back then, he had just washed out of the majors and returned to his hometown for a humiliating job as a gym coach at the middle school where April worked.
That first season struck an almost perfect balance of low-brow shock humor and addictive drama, with Powers gleefully tearing the town of Shelby a new one in pursuit of his selfish goals, while displaying just enough humanity to allow viewers to stay on his side. Mixon’s portrayal of April deserves much of the credit for that, as do Ferrell’s over-the-top villain skills. In Mexico, Powers ruins a few lives and gets a few laughs, but much of the drama gets lost in dropped subplots and murky storytelling. (Also, cornrows—blech.) If it wasn’t for Steve Little’s intensely goofy portrayal of Powers’ clueless but loyal sidekick Stevie, the second season might well have been a disappointment.
The third season was supposed to be the last, and it shows in the frantic way some of the loose ends are tied. The plotline is satisfying, though it doesn’t make a lot of sense and is predictable up until the goofy twist ending, where Powers walks out on his dream and fakes his own death for no apparent reason. I guess that was a last joke the writers couldn’t resist, but if it really had been the end of the show, I’d score it as a letdown, because it trashes Powers’ only true virtue—his blind tenacity.
HBO surprised everyone when it decided to bring Eastbound & Down back for extra innings. One can assume the writers of the soon-to-come season four will paper over the lame ending of the season three and put Kenny back in the majors, where we can finally see how he handles the two things he seems most afraid of—success and stability. He’ll also have to deal with his true feelings for April, as Mixon, whose work on the CBS sitcom Mike & Molly made her unavailable for much of Eastbound & Down, will reportedly be much more a part of season four. But will Kenny Powers crack under the pressure of being both a major leaguer and a family man? That’s what he’s done so far, and so far, the show’s stayed funny. Or will he grow up and stop acting like a jerk? Because if he does that, it really will be the end of Kenny Powers as we know him.