The Complete First Season
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Reviewed by Jim Washington
ho is Kenny Powers? The People’s Champion. The Shelby Sensation, aka the Reverse Apache Master. He’s a bulletproof tiger, and his face cashes fucking checks. To you, Miss, he’s The Man with the Golden Dick, or Dr. Cockandballs. In short, he’s Kenny Fucking Powers, whose trajectory from Major League pitching ace to “just a regular guy, with exceptional hair” is portrayed in the HBO series “Eastbound & Down.” The six-episode series has just been released on DVD.
Powers is played by it-redneck Danny McBride, who created the series with college buddies Ben Best and Jody Hill, the same team that created the martial arts comedy “The Foot Fist Way” in 2006. That movie brought McBride to the attention of Will Ferrell, who is a producer on “Eastbound.” From there, Virginia native McBride rocketed to comedy stardom. He has brightened movie screens in “Pineapple Express,” “Tropic Thunder” and, regrettably, “The Heartbreak Kid” and “Land of the Lost.” McBride excels at playing a certain type of rural American, obsessed with beer and boobs and his own proper place in the world: on top. He's also a Beethoven of blue, able to casually insert curse words into any sentence and any situation to hilarious effect.
The character of Kenny Powers is based on a combination of John Kruk, the rotund former Major Leaguer from West Virginia famous for referring to himself as “a ballplayer, not an athlete,” and John Rocker, the former Atlanta Braves pitcher who basically torpedoed his career by complaining about foreigners and “queers” after he was traded to New York.
“Eastbound & Down” begins with Kenny on top, winning Game 7 of the World Series on a strikeout and uttering what will eventually become his catchphrase, “you’re fucking out!” But soon his fastball cools off and his mouth continues to shoot off; he refers to The Big Apple as “Jew York” and offers this complaint during a TV interview: “I thought the blacks in Baltimore were bad. Shit, they’re nothing compared to these fags you got here in San Francisco…ha ha.” Kenny’s career heads South, literally, when he washes out of baseball and returns to his North Carolina hometown, crashing with his brother, Dustin, his wife, and their three children. Kenny's one indulgence is his jet ski, which he takes out when he needs to think. The sight of McBride, mullet flying behind him, on the water at various points throughout the series provide some of the show’s best visuals.
The family barely knows what hit them. Dustin, played by John Hawkes of “Deadwood” fame, goes between being befuddled and infuriated by his brother, who curses at his kids, orders hookers to the house and mocks his church-going, “Titanic”-loving wife, Cassie. To make ends meet, Kenny takes a job as a PE teacher at his old middle school, where he reconnects with the love of his life, April, played by the enormously appealing and curvy Katy Mixon. He’s instantly in love again (at least with her body), but she’s engaged to the school’s principal, Terrence Cutler, played by Andrew Daly. Daly excels at playing Cutler as a mentally fragile doofus who’s in the thrall of a famous athlete but still wants to keep him from cursing at the students.
Kenny’s star power exerts an even greater effect on nerdy music teacher Stevie Janowski, played by Steve Little (you may have seen him as “crazed naked man” on “Reno 911.”) Stevie falls for Kenny hard, and is soon wearing black and sprinkling “motherfuckers” and “bitches” into his conversations, and volunteers as his assistant. Kenny sets about winning April back, but not by any means as ordinary as changing his outrageous behavior. Instead, he tries to impress her by expressing his feelings through dance during an ecstasy-fueled tour as chaperone at a school function, and informing her that her breasts have been an inspiration to him all these years.
Series co-creator Ben Best plays Clegg, Kenny’s confidant and drug dealer, and Sylvia Jefferies is Tracy, a coke-sniffing drunk who becomes Kenny’s sort-of girlfriend.
Of course, Kenny wants to get back to the major leagues, or at least make some money off his notoriety. To that end, he approaches BMW salesman Ashley Schaeffer, played by Ferrell in full Ric Flair mode – bleach blonde hair, sunglasses and suits with no socks. Their interactions are some of the series’ highlights, as Ferrell explains how blowjobs can help seal a car sale and slapping Kenny in the crotch at unexpected moments. Schaeffer sets up an embarrassing pitching duel with the player who ended Kenny’s playing career, played by Craig Robinson of “The Office.” Again, watching Ferrell, McBride and Robinson, a comedy treasure, play off each other is priceless (and makes for some funny outtakes on the DVD.)
The series makes good use of Southern rock and cheesy ‘70s country pop (Kenny Rogers’ “Love Will Turn You Around” shows up at a climatic moment) and running gags such as Kenny’s self-help tape, “You’re Fucking Out, I’m Fucking In.” For someone like Kenny, redemption is elusive and perhaps impossible, and that’s for the best. The character is at his funniest when he’s suffering from the embarrassment of failure, self-doubt and premature ejaculation. Kenny takes the term “anti-hero” to a whole new level, and after six episodes, you still want more. Here’s hoping HBO does, too.