As a Chicagoan, the only thing Judge Patrick Bromley gets from heading eastbound is wet.
Our reviews of Eastbound and Down: The Complete First Season (Blu-ray) (published August 10th, 2011), Eastbound And Down: The Complete Second Season (Blu-ray) (published August 2nd, 2011), and Eastbound and Down: The Complete Third Season (Blu-ray) (published December 10th, 2012) are also available.
Every kid has a great ballplayer they look up to. Kenny Powers is not that guy.
I have an odd relationship with Jody Hill, movie director and co-creator of the new HBO comedy series Eastbound & Down. His first movie, The Foot Fist Way, was hyped as the second coming of comedy by some funny people I respect (chiefly Patton Oswalt). Its lead actor, Danny McBride, was going to be the next comedy superstar. But the movie barely received a theatrical release (and wouldn't have received one at all, if not for having been rescued by benefactors Will Ferrell and Adam McKay), so I missed it back when it only played on one screen here in Chicago. When I finally caught up with it on DVD, I felt a little let down. It wasn't a bad movie, and clearly announced the voice of a new comedic talent, but it felt a bit shaggy and one-note to me.
Then, Hill released his second film: this year's Observe and Report. I had liked the trailer and saw enough promise in The Foot Fist Way to check it out, and I was surprised by my reaction. It's a masterpiece. Gone was the shaggy, low-budgetedness of Foot Fist; Hill demonstrated himself a formalist on par with Wes Anderson. The point of view was stronger; rather than just seeing a story about a guy (like Foot Fist), Observe and Report seemed to spring directly from the demented brain of its hero, Ronnie Barnhardt (played not by McBride but by Seth Rogen). I couldn't get the movie out of my head for days, and was stunned by the effect it had had on me. Here it is, months later, and it's still on a short list as one of my favorite movies of 2009.
All of this brings me to HBO's Eastbound & Down, a show I came to specifically because of my affection for Observe and Report. I'm happy to say that the series is closer to that film than to Foot Fist Way (again, not to bag on that movie; I know there are many who love it and consider it the best thing Hill's done). I don't know if Jody Hill has gotten better or if I've just warmed to his particular sensibility, but count me among Eastbound's small but fervent cult of fans.
Facts of the Case
The series focuses on Kenny Powers (McBride), once the bad boy of professional baseball known for cursing, partying and pitching a faster fastball than any player in the league. But the years weren't kind to Kenny, and as his pitch began to slow down so did public goodwill and adoration. Eventually, Kenny retires from baseball in pseudo-disgrace, moving back in with his brother (John Hawkes, Me and You and Everyone We Know) and his family and substitute teaching physical education at the high school. That's OK, though, because Kenny has never given up the dream; this little detour is merely part of his master plan to stage a huge comeback, regain his celebrity and win back the heart of the girl he once left behind (Katy Mixon, The Quiet).
The masterstroke of Eastbound & Down is in the performance by Danny McBride as Kenny Powers. McBride had a bit of a rough start in Hollywood; he was built up as a guy primed to explode (again, mostly by comedians I like and who should know), but for a while was mostly relegated to supporting roles in small, little-seen comedies like Hot Rod, Drillbit Taylor and the lamentable remake of The Heartbreak Kid. What's worse is that he was rarely allowed to be funny in any of them. It wasn't really until his sublime performance in Pineapple Express that I realized just how incredibly funny he could be, as he stole that film from a whole bunch of really funny people. Even that performance now seems like a warm-up for Kenny Powers (though the characters couldn't be more different), easily the character McBride was born to play and one of the funniest, best-realized comic creations on TV in a decade.
Eastbound, like Observe and Report, works so well because it's told entirely from the perspective of Kenny Powers. He's not just the main character—it's his mind that's up on the screen. There are scenes that become slow-motion bouts of coolness (either Jody Hill or his music supervisor have excellent taste) because that's the way Kenny sees himself. Never mind that the rest of the world—save for the sycophantic Stevie (Steve Little, The Ugly Truth), a nerdy wanna-be Kenny Powers—isn't quite on the same page. Throughout the season, Kenny experiences highs and lows both thrilling and sad, including an arc where he attempts to do away with any of his Kenny Powers-ness and become "just like everyone else." It's my favorite of the six episodes, and probably the show where McBride's gifts shine the brightest.
DVD is actually an ideal way to watch Eastbound & Down: The Complete First Season. The six episodes that make up the first season were conceived almost as one long film (each new episode picks up at the moment the last one left off), meaning you can watch the whole thing as one piece rather than breaking it up from week to week. HBO's DVD set looks and sounds good, with a bright and sharp anamorphic widescreen transfer and a surprisingly powerful 5.1 audio track (again, the music cues are great).
HBO, who has never been known to include a ton of extras on their DVD releases, has even seen fit to fill Eastbound & Down: The Complete First Season with a good offering of bonus material. There are three commentaries (on the pilot, episode four and the season finale) with Hill, McBride, co-creator Ben Best and director David Gordon Green (who helmed two of the episodes, with Hill taking another two and Adam McKay rounding out the trio of directors). It's fun to hear the foursome talk about the show and what they find funny, and provides some insight into what makes Eastbound & Down such a unique series.
There are a couple of featurettes, including a standard behind-the-scenes and three in-character pieces: two car commercials for guest star Will Ferrell's dealership and the awesome comeback video Stevie makes, available here as a separate selection in its entirety. There's also a reel of deleted scenes and another for outtakes, which contains a lot of very funny ad-libbing by guest star Ferrell.
The good news is that HBO has already renewed Eastbound & Down for a second season, meaning we haven't seen the last of Kenny Powers. McBride has created a brilliant, iconic character in a show that revels in bad behavior and the delusions of the pitiful. Maybe that doesn't sound funny to you. I get that. But this isn't comedy of embarrassment or awkwardness—don't confuse its humor with Meet the Parents. Kenny Powers may be pathetic, but his confidence and defiance borders on triumphant. I, for one, love him for it.
Not guilty. Long may Kenny Powers reign—though, more likely, for just one more season.
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