There’s a conundrum at the heart of Eastbound & Down. We watch the show in large part for the absolutely shameless behavior of Kenny Powers (Danny McBride). He regularly and blithely violates any number of social mores on a daily basis. That combination of cluelessness and fearlessness is embarrassing and hilarious and also oddly alluring. We wish we could live as fully and passionately as Kenny, even as we realize how painful and empty that existence is. We want to see Kenny straighten up and succeed because there’s something admirable within him, but if he ever does become aware of his own failings he’ll stop being the fool that entertains us. We need him to be redeemed to assuage our guilt, but redemption will destroy what makes Eastbound so powerful.
I thought that last week’s sudden death of Shane (Jason Sudeikis) might serve as some kind of wake-up call for Kenny. So much for that theory. If anything, Shane’s overdose has inspired Kenny’s worst behavior yet. Instead of calling 911 Kenny finishes off the cocaine and leaves Shane’s body on the couch with an open copy of Kenny’s latest memoir on his chest. On the way out he steals Shane’s ridiculous customized pickup. We expect Kenny to steal from his friends and force them to read his books, but not when those friends are freshly dead.
If you think Eastbound & Down is already too dark, then “Chapter 17” is not the episode for you. It shows the repercussions of Shane’s death, with Kenny making a horrible ass of himself every step of the way. Unsurprisingly the self-obsessed Kenny makes Shane’s death entirely about him and his own grief.
Unlike Eastbound’s previous darkest moments, or co-creator Jody Hill’s excellent film Observe and Report, this episode is almost too cringe-worthy to ever laugh at. Kenny insults Shane’s family at the funeral home, fixates on trivial trinkets like HD cameras and “high definition Blu Rays” while everybody mourns Shane, and eventually exploits Shane’s twin brother Cole (Sudeikis) in an unconscionably cruel prank on Shane’s girlfriend. Most of it is too raw and too wrong to be funny, even though it’s all perfectly in character for Kenny. Cole, a responsible adult who rightfully pegged his twin as an immature asshole who always thought he was 18, eventually tells Kenny off as honestly and succinctly as anybody ever has on this show. I honestly wanted him to bust up Kenny’s nose.
Everything involving Shane is hard to watch this week, but at least it isn’t the cartoonish catastrophe of “Chapter 15”. Plus it takes commitment to follow through with such painful but in-character displays of irredeemable, self-obsessed idiocy. And Kenny’s eulogy is undeniably funny, from the lengthy excerpt from Candelbox’s “Far Behind” to Kenny proudly proclaiming himself Tom Cruise to Shane’s Goose before blasting Pearl Jam’s “Alive”.
Less unsettling but almost as sad is the continued sexual drama between Stevie (Steve Little) and his wife Maria (Elizabeth De Razzo). The desperate Stevie is quickly losing interest in his wife. While Maria resentfully takes care of Kenny’s baby Stevie sits out on the beach ogling bikini babes and engaging in a surprising cemetery quickie with Shane’s despondent sister. They need movies and toys to ignite that magical spark in the bedroom, and when they finally reconnect we see that Stevie is as subservient to Maria as he is to Kenny. They turn an act that many blustering, “red-blooded” males would find disgusting and degrading into a moment of bizarre sweetness.
“Chapter 17” works hard to make us hate Kenny Powers, and pretty much succeeds. Of course we should probably hate him already, but normally we can always see the lost and wounded animal beneath the hostile exterior. The last shot of “Chapter 17” hints at the one thing that could potentially save Kenny Powers: the love of April (Katy Mixon). Her phone call could set up either Kenny’s ultimate redemption or his final descent into complete sociopathy. Too bad Cole threw Kenny’s phone out of the window of Shane’s truck after the funeral.