The work of “Eastbound & Down” creator Jody Hill definitely has thematic consistency, always focusing on a repulsively crass and arrogant man whose only response to losing control of his life is to dig himself a deeper hole so that rock bottom will be all the more crippling when it comes.
From his debut film “The Foot Fist Way” to 2009’s underrated “Observe and Report,” Hill has taken joy in creating reprehensible yet sort of likable figures. Kenny Powers in Hill’s television show “Eastbound & Down” is the ultimate realization of this formula, a through-and-through bastard you can’t stop watching, if only to see what low he’s going to sink to next.
“Eastbound & Down” returned for its third (and reportedly final) season on HBO last night with a premiere that only hints at the lunacy to come. Kenny (Danny McBride), a former Major League pitcher now playing for the Myrtle Beach Mermen, truly believes he’s on his way to reclaiming his former glory. However, last night’s return of ex-girlfriend April Buchanan (Katy Mixon) introduced a wild card into Kenny’s life after she made one of the worst parenting decisions in recorded history and left her one-year-old, Toby, in his father’s care.
Last night’s episode introduced a few new players into the series with more to come. The most notable of these new additions is Jason Sudeikis as Kenny’s equally foul best friend. Sudeikis appears to be having a blast being able to cut loose and competing with McBride to see who can come up with the most depraved punchline. However, even more laughs come from Kenny’s new responsibilities as a father.
Rather than playing this as a story of a man growing up and learning how to raise a son, “Eastbound & Down” would rather show us an extremely lucky man who can somehow stuff a baby into a backpack with a head of lettuce (so it’ll eat healthy) and ride around on a moped without causing irreparable damage to the poor kid. Toby appears to be in real danger every minute he spends with Kenny and it adds a hilarious edge to the proceedings to know that a baby is in peril in the background of every scene.
However, next week’s episode focuses less on the hilarity of Kenny’s new surroundings and more on showing the audience just how deranged McBride and Hill are willing to go with Kenny Powers and “Eastbound & Down.” Lots of old faces return, including the sorely missed Stevie Janowski (Steve Little), Kenny’s best friend who’s about as capable as his infant son. Also returning is Will Ferrell as the terrifying Ashley Schaeffer, a local car salesman who delights in tormenting Steve and taunting Kenny. When Ferrell comes onscreen, the episode takes a truly bizarre turn. Things happen that are baffling in their oddity yet side-splitting in their hilarity. It’s a true showcase for the uncontrolled lunacy that Jody Hill is capable of.
Hill’s characters aren’t just tragically flawed men, they’re also dangerously competent. In “Observe and Report,” when Seth Rogen’s bipolar mall cop springs into action, it has uniformly bloody results, and there’s no denying that behind all of the hemming and hawing, Kenny can throw the hell out of a baseball. That knowledge that these men are so arrogant because they’re so good at what they do is what adds a true danger and unpredictability to Hill’s work.
However, Kenny wouldn’t be half as compelling if McBride didn’t do such a great job playing him. McBride has fully committed to making Kenny a scumbag of a man who thinks he’s a hero and role model and makes Kenny’s delusions equally hilarious and depressing. Without McBride, Kenn is not such an iconic character and “Eastbound & Down” isn’t such a singular, uproarious show.
Instead, we have seven more episodes before the “Eastbound & Down” saga wraps up and we say goodbye to Kenny, so enjoy the off-the-rails madness for as long as you can.
Printed on Monday, February 20, 2012 as: Hilarity ensures on HBO series