Thursday, September 30, 2010

EASTBOUND AND DOWN - A BADASS TELEVISION REVIEW



EASTBOUND AND DOWN - A BADASS TELEVISION REVIEW

-By Mediasaurus Rex




EASTBOUND AND DOWN, HBO’s weekly half-hour television show has my complete attention. Initially, it comes on strong and abrasive, but there is no question about the fact that this half-hour show is funny. The humor is mean-spirited but sometimes whimsical. Mostly it is focused on how funny it can be when a human being lacks a moral compass. There is nothing to like about Danny McBride’s failed major league pitcher, Kenny Powers. Lots of screentime is invested in letting us know one thing: Powers is a despicable human being.

The pilot episode is a relentless, painful focus on the out-of-control piggishness of Kenny Powers. Powers’ entire existence is unforgiveable. Every facet of it is tarnished by sleaze and a general self-absorbed, trashy, world-view. The Kenny Powers story is that he was on top of the world, and he lost it all. His pitching speed dropped, and with that, (more) drug-abuse and irresponsible living set in.

The pilot episode is mostly concerned with Powers taking a job as a part-time gym coach to make ends meet. It is almost cliché how Powers’ teaching methods are limited to ridicule, profanity, and veiled threats of physical harm. Powers’ immediate response to a kid who tells him that his father said that he “ruined baseball” is to say, “If everyone wants to pick on anyone in class, aim for him because I ain’t watching.”

He is also one of the most misogynist characters ever to hold the position of protagonist. Kenny is interested in rekindling his romance with his high school sweetheart April (Katy Mixon), but his attraction to her is all breast-related. When introducing a different female friend to the principal of his school, he instructs her not to “suck him off.”

Over the next few episodes, more of Powers’ uncouth ways are paraded. His coke and ecstasy use with his drug-buddy Clegg (Ben Best) are a particularly disturbing revelation. (A line of cocaine up the nose looks painful enough, but when it is as thick as a banana slug?) Powers’ love/hate relationship with BMW dealership owner and televangelist-coifed Ashley Shaffer (Will Farrell) inches past the line of comfort as well. Even Powers’ relationship with simple sycophant and co-teacher Steve Janowski (Steve Little) is merely varying degrees of cringe-induction. All of Powers’ behavior has a purpose though, and the purpose is completely self-centered.

Powers has run aground in bland, white picket fence America with his jet ski (the panty-dropper) and a trailer full of his own baseball memorabilia. But he never drops his anchor completely. He holds back, knowing that the majors will call him at any second and he will be back on top. He wants it bad. He wants to live the life of a superstar again and leave all of these average people in North Carolina behind. This community would be better off if he would just take off and become someone else’s problem. But he has to learn a lesson or two on humility before he can leave.

The running voice-over is a hubris-dripping, self-worshipping book on tape narrated by Powers himself called I’M F*CKING IN, YOU’RE F*CKING OUT which Powers plays over and over to himself in his spare time. Powers knows that he has lost his mojo and that even if he had the skills to be back in the majors, it would still take divine intervention to make it happen. But he starts taking steroids anyway to “kickstart the training.”

With Steve Janowski, his fawning personal assistant/whipping boy, Powers plays every “catching major league attention” angle that he is capable of. As the first season continues, Powers indeed catches the break he needs to make it back to the top. The surreality of such a blessing lingers just long enough for the six episode first season to pull the rug back out from underneath him. Where will he go? Is he coming back? And what about his re-kindled relationship with April (and her breasts)?

Given that Powers is such a complete jerk, there is an underlying riddle in the show: can the audience ever connect with such a vain, profane, ignorant, mullet-wearing egotist? The beauty of EASTBOUND AND DOWN is that yes, yes we really can. The magic of this show is that through the fog of profanity, sexism, cruelty, and alcohol and drug abuse, the writers manage to humanize Kenny Powers with no real compromise to the afore-mentioned issues.

What seems like an insurmountable creative writing task is deftly handled by Jody Hill, Danny McBride, Ben Best and Shawn Harwell, the creative team behind EASTBOUND AND DOWN. Season Two’s first episode shows Powers re-established in Mexico sporting corn-rowed hair living the life of a cock-fighting kingpin on Janowski’s credit card. Powers demonstrates command over this new niche. He has a rooster that is a killing machine. He also rolls with a pair of thugs (one of them is the extremely foul-mouthed, height-challenged Aaron (Deep Roy)) that seem to be just as devoid of social skills as he is. Powers, riding his moped through the streets of Mexico, flipping off random people, maintains a general superhuman belligerence.

As far as Powers is concerned, baseball is over. He has assumed Janowski’s identity and he is living moderately in squalor. Kenny Powers is built for this kind of low-living. But he still has an ego. Kenny is tempted to bloom as a Mexican baseball player and cross back over to the states. The roids have sped up his pitch and he is going to make as much noise as he possibly can south of the American border. There is still a chance that he can catch major league attention and get back on top.

He is still haunted by April and her breasts, but there is a new woman who has caught his eye named Vida (Ana de la Reguera), and Vida has a nice rear-end. Powers has issues to work through, and they are as complicated as any battle of the flesh could be.

The opening episode of season two of EASTBOUND AND DOWN could aptly be titled “The Re-invention of a Total Douchebag.” Powers built his failed bridge out of middle-class, western America and he now has to do it again out of a crime-ridden neighborhood south of the border. Powers remains just as funny, self-centered, and completely irreverent as ever.

The rest of Season Two has a challenge, though. Will we be able to root for Kenny again? If the masterful storytelling of Season One is any indication, there is no question whatsoever. Soon we will all be rooting for Kenny Powers to transcend his “further behind the eightball” existence. But until that point, it is going to be a lot of fun and laughs watching this moral graveyard of a man swirl around the drain until we can honestly care again.



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