HBO // 2009 // 180 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // August 10th, 2011
Every kid has a great ballplayer they look up to. Kenny Powers is not that guy.
Damaged or errant masculinity has been the stuff comedy for ages. Whether it's Woody Allen's put-upon persona or Jack Lemmon running around in drag, there's something about watching men not be quite masculine enough that tickles our collective funny bone. There is, however, a flip side to this brand of comedy, and that's the overly masculine comedian; Andrew Dice Clay comes to mind as someone who hyped his masculinity to get laughs. However, there was always something goofy about guys like Clay, like they were in on the joke. This led, particularly in Clay's case, to a kind of smugness that was obnoxious. The genius of Jody Hill's Eastbound & Down -- and its protagonist Kenny Powers -- is that it takes a hyper-masculine persona but plays it absolutely, almost painfully straight. Kenny Powers is living out a male fantasy of sports talent, abundant sex, reckless drug use, and supreme physical attraction. Never mind that he's moved back to his hometown to be a gym teacher and live with his brother. The contrast between Kenny's personal fantasies and his physical reality creates some of the most uncomfortable and affecting laughs a dark comedy has ever offered. Now fans of the series can enjoy the first season with this excellent Blu-ray release.
Eastbound & Down: The Complete First Season opens with one of the best montages in the history of comedic television. It starts with a World Series game, when relief pitcher Kenny Powers (Danny McBride, Tropic Thunder) is brought in at the last minute. His game-winning pitch makes him a star (and gives the world the catchphrase, "You're fucking out"). After that, we see press conference footage of Kenny declaring himself a free agent intercut with scenes of him pitching a 100 mph fastball. However, his foul mouth continues to get him into hot water, and scene after scene shows him moving to different teams as his fastball slowly decreases in speed until he's accused of steroid use. When the montage ends, Kenny is out of the majors, sitting for a test ("Several shitty years later," we're told) to be a substitute teacher in his hometown. Forced to live with his brother (John Hawkes, Deadwood) due to poor financial management, Kenny teachers at a local middle school where he rekindles a flame he held for his high school sweetheart April (Katy Mixon, All About Steve) -- despite the fact that she's going to be married to the school's principal. This season finds Kenny struggling with rock bottom, attempting to make cash and hopefully get himself back to the big leagues. All six episodes are presented on two discs.
If you were told Eastbound & Down was a comedy, then I'm sorry but you were lied to. No, Eastbound & Down is a tragedy. The twentieth century saw the emergence of a new type of tragedy, the tragedy of the common man. Epitomized by the likes of Willy Loman, these men were not the kings and princes of older tragedies, but everyday guys who were somehow incapable of rising to the challenges of the modern world. Great playwrights rose their failures to the level of tragedy. Someone might take away my English degree for saying this, but I'd put Kenny Powers up against Willy Loman any day. He's the center of Eastbound & Down, and his tragic flaw is his total inability to live in the world with the rest of us. In his mind he's the greatest pitcher the game has ever seen, attractive to every woman, and the kind of man every other man wants to be. To us, though, he's sexist, racist, boorish, and simply doesn't have the talent to match his mouth. In the difference between his perception and ours lies some of the funniest moments on television.
Jody Hill's brilliance lies in making this the Kenny Powers show; we see the world through his eyes, hear it through his ears. That means that sometimes Kenny gets some slow-mo and a sweet soundtrack as he engages in some action that would embarrass any other right-thinking person. However, these moments -- when Kenny dons his shades and saunters out of the school to "Black Betty" -- gives this strange little man a mythic presence. While he may be brought low by the season's end, for a while we ride high with Kenny during these crazy scenes.
Jody Hill was also brilliant in casting Danny McBride, who was the star of Hill's first film The Foot Fist Way. Because he doesn't have the looks to be a star, McBride has too-often been relegated to playing smaller, supporting roles. Eastbound & Down is McBride's moment in the sun, and he shines so brightly it's almost painful. He's so committed to Kenny Powers that it's easy to forget that his Foot Fist Way character was a similarly serious sports practitioner/teacher. As Kenny Powers, McBride is a master of timing and the ability to sell the most outrageous lines. The other actors (including Will Ferrell and John Hawkes) are excellent, but McBride is transcendent.
This Blu-ray set is an excellent way for new fans to find Eastbound and for old fans to re-experience the show. The 1.78:1 AVC-encoded transfer are solid, though not perfect. This show was fairly low budget for an HBO series, so detail isn't as strong as it could be, and black levels are a little off here and there. However, this is a bright, colorful show for the most part, and that's reflected well in these transfers. The DTS-HD soundtrack is similarly strong, if not perfect. Dialogue is clear in the center channels, with good use of the surrounds. The track really comes alive, though, during Kenny's montages as he does his thing to a blaring soundtrack. We get some good low end as rap and rock blast to Kenny's personal film.
Extras include commentaries with McBride, Hill, director David Gordon Green (of Pineapple Express fame), and producer/actor/writer Ben Best on episodes one, four, and six. They're lively commentaries that cover the usual ground of the series' origins, production stories, and general camaraderie. Next, we get a short making-of from HBO, followed by some fake promo material for Kenny Powers and Ashley Schaeffer BMW. Finally, we get 10 minutes of deleted scenes, and 13 minutes of outtakes featuring ad-libs and other funny moments with the actors.
Kenny Powers is not a nice person. If someone were to re-film this season from someone else's perspective (like his brother's), Kenny would look like a completely irredeemable jerk. And he is. Those not willing to overlook this fact to find the comedy and tragedy in his situation will find something to be offended by in his crude language, drug use, and adolescent sexuality.
An endorsement of Eastbound & Down is not an endorsement of Kenny Powers. I would never want to meet Kenny, but darn if his portrayal here isn't one of the funniest and most complex portraits television has yet produced. With this solid Blu-ray release, new fans can experience the show in hi-def glory with decent extras. For fans who already own the standard def releases, there isn't much here to tempt an upgrade.
Kenny Powers may be out, but Eastbound & Down: The Complete First Season is not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2011 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 180 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Episode Commentaries
* Deleted Scenes