The third season of Eastbound & Down premieres on HBO this Sunday night. Washed-up major leaguer Kenny Powers (Danny McBride) has left Mexico to pitch for a minor league team in Myrtle Beach and deal with his paternal obligations to his newborn son Toby. I’ve seen the first few episodes, and if you’ve enjoyed the show so far you will probably want to tune in. If you haven’t watched it before, you might need to rethink your priorities.
Originating from a cluster of North Carolina-bred creators that include McBride, the writer and director Jody Hill and erstwhile art-house upstart and Malick heir apparent turned stoner comedy impresario David Gordon Greene, Eastbound & Down is a fearless sitcom that’s funnier than most comedies and more powerful than most dramas. Its tone and ambition far exceed what you normally find on TV, and that impression is furthered by short, British-style seasons that make Eastbound feel less like a standard television show than a serialized movie. If you’re unsure, though, here are six reasons why you should watch Eastbound & Down when it returns to HBO this Sunday.
It’s three up and three down for Kenny Powers, as the upcoming third season of Eastbound will be its last. Beyond being the last few half-hours we’ll have to spend with the character (until the inevitable movie, reunion show and Hardee’s endorsement deal), that means it’s possible Kenny might actually change for real this time. In the past Kenny has shown tentative signs of growth and maturation only for it to all evaporate by the end of the season. With only a half-dozen or so episodes left, Hill, McBride and co. might be tempted to sincerely redeem Kenny. Of course that would be extremely atypical and unexpected from these guys, and run counter to…
I know a lot of people who can’t stand Eastbound because of how dark it is. I don’t agree, but I can understand. The same people have issues with The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Eastbound might be darker than any of those shows (well, except for Sunny, which wallows too deep into the muck). Kenny is an unrepentant sexist, racist, and drug-addicted asshole whose every action and utterance should make any right-thinking individual cringe. Like Hill’s underrated movie Observe and Report, Eastbound could easily become an extremely sad and disturbing drama (and it occasionally does) with the slightest change in tone. Eastbound’s darkness never becomes unbearable because…
Yeah, it’s not Parks & Rec on the warm and fuzzy front, but Eastbound isn’t a complete moral vacuum like Sunny. Kenny is surrounded by well-intended characters who keep the show grounded, like his brother (John Hawkes) and his family. Even Stevie (Steve Little), Kenny’s worshipful assistant and a delusional freak capable of performing all sorts of depravity on Kenny’s orders, can occasionally exert a marginally positive influence upon Kenny. Kenny needs Stevie as much as Stevie needs him, and Kenny’s codependence on people like Stevie and his off-again, on-again high school love April (Katy Mixon) is the only thing that ever humanizes him. Reconnecting with his dad (Don Johnson) had a similar effect in season two, and Kenny’s relationship with his son Toby promises more of the same. These glimpses of the insecure person within Kenny’s cartoonishly outsized persona add a bit of much-needed depth. They make us care about Kenny beyond the laughs, but also make that comedy even darker.
Sure, Kenny lives down to every negative stereotype of the South. He’s ignorant, belligerent, casually racist and dedicated solely to his own comfort and pleasure. He’s like a Hee Haw character turned evil. But he’s also really the only Southern stereotype in the show. Despite a pronounced drawl that would consign him to Kenneth Parcell-style hick purgatory on any other show, Kenny’s brother is a solidly middle-class professional with a nice house and family. April has the thickest accent on the show but is also its most intelligent and competent character (a fact that makes her occasional relapse into the redneck hedonism that defined her youthful romance with Kenny all the more hilarious). Instead of a supposedly normal central character of Midwestern or Northeastern origin surrounded by a crew of regionally quirky oddballs, Eastbound drops one extreme caricature into what is otherwise a normal and realistic depiction of the contemporary South.
I don’t know if it’s Jody Hill or David Gordon Greene or just a particularly astute music supervisor, but whoever picks the music for Eastbound does a fantastic job. This show uses music better than any other show on the air right now. The variety and quality are outstanding, from tonally perfect classic rock and country from RamJam and Kenny Rogers to deep cut record collector nerd-out moments from the Slits and Kurt Vile. Pop music soundtracks can be a crutch or a cliché for shameless Scorsese or Wes Anderson apers, but the Eastbound crew does it better than any filmmaker.
Ferrell has never publically acknowledged it, but it’s too blatant to even question: Ashley Schaeffer is clearly just Ric Flair as a sleazy car dealer. The one thing that would make this show even better is if they cut out Ferrell and hired the Nature Boy himself to play this role. With his money problems Flair would’ve flopped and flipped at the chance.