Saturday, July 4, 2009

Eastbound & Down — Season 1

I've been watching Jody Hill's career with great interest ever since I caught his funny but uneven low-budget debut The Foot Fist Way. That film, as well as his follow-up, the ambitious but occasionally reprehensible Observe and Report, showed a demented talent who filtered the "Judd Apatow formula" -- honestly, Kevin Smith was doing it a decade earlier, and better -- through a lens of poor Appalachian bitterness and cynicism. His view of the feral madness bubbling beneath unassuming suburban schlubs plays like a white trash David Lynch. He took the darkness of Punch-Drunk Love and tried to force it back into Adam Sandler's normal comic persona, and that's why his streak of noble failures are so frustrating. He's got a hell of a goal, but he hasn't quite found the means to pull it off. Until now.

Eastbound & Down, a collaboration between Hill, his writing partner Ben Best and his favorite player, Danny McBride, gives the twisted trio the time they need to flesh out their warped yet strangely plausible microcosm and the even weirder characters who inhabit it. McBride has always played a redneck variant of the Will Ferrell persona, that of the incompetent athlete or craftsman who believes himself to be the best in his field no matter how many times he fails to do anything right, and Ferrell himself even guest stars in two of the episodes. But his Kenny Powers is something more, a devastatingly funny combination of Ferrell's "mediocre American man" and Ricky Gervais' David Brent.

Powers was once a professional baseball player. Starting with the Atlanta Braves, he made a name for himself in his rookie year with his cannon of an arm and, later, his unfiltered mouth. With his trademark catchphrase "You're fucking out!" and his appalling statements concerning women, homosexuals and minorities, he became the Bad Boy of Baseball, as renowned for his unbelievable ego as his 101 mph pitch. I would say that the fame went to his head, but you get the idea that fame went to his head before anyone had even heard of him. He bounces from team to team, and the hard living takes its toll on his talents, until at last his slowed pitch and a steroids scandal force him out of the majors.

Down but not -- in his addled mind -- out, Powers returns to his hometown in what he believes will be a triumphant return that will fuel his comeback. Indeed, a few townsfolk are overjoyed to see him, but Kenny is so blinded by ego that he's as likely to punch them in the face as sign an autograph. The rest of the town, however, is indifferent to their fallen idol. Kenny moves in with his brother Dustin (John Hawkes) and his wife Cassie (Jennifer Irwin), who urge him to get a job as they know the glory days are behind him.

Kenny eventually relents and heads to the local high school, where he starts as a substitute gym teacher and fills in full-time when the old teacher dies. He sees it as a chance to impress the town's youth and a way to provide a steady income until the big leagues come calling back, and soon he's the most inappropriate teacher who ever dared to stand in front of a class and lecture. The only way he could be any worse a teacher is if he had a relationship with a student, but he does just fine being a monster without crossing that hurdle (and thank God Hill never takes it that far, unlike the disturbing rape sequence in Observe and Report).

Kenny brings that same blind, unwarranted optimism and energy to his coaching -- even though he never seems to teach the kids anything beyond what a legend he is -- and soon his mania has won over the oddball band teacher Stevie Janowski (Steve Little) -- who may or may not be mentally challenged -- and milquetoast principal Terrence Cutler (Andrew Daly). He also attempts to rekindle a relationship with old flame April (Katy Mixon), now engaged to Terrence. April is the second most engaging character after Kenny, as she has clearly moved on in life, but she has a darker side that comes to the fore as Kenny relentlessly tries to woo her. Mixon handles both sides perfectly, and you can buy why such a person might fall for Kenny beyond mere plot contrivances.

Hill, Best and McBride wrote all six of the season's episodes, which they justly dub "chapters." Eastbound & Down certainly plays like a novel, directly continuing where the last episode left off. That planning allows the cast of improv heavies to do their thing without letting the show spin out of orbit, and the situations Kenny finds himself in do not seem simply like setups. His excursion to the local BMW dealer (run by Will Ferrell in his best role in some years) initially seems little more than an excuse to put their star executive producer in the show, but Ashley Schaffer is such a brilliantly loony character in his own right that he makes the episode stand out. We return to the dealership a few episodes later, where Kenny must face off with his old, also-shamed baseball rival, played by Craig Robinson, and the results are magnificent. The entire show is based on the perversion of the small town hero story, and the face off between the two manages to skewer epic sports showdowns with their laughable display.

Naturally, Kenny has a handful of highs to accompany his many, terrible lows, as watching someone being kicked in the gutter constantly loses its appeal; having him slip and fall back in the gutter as he finally tries to get out, however, is gold. The final episode ends with a minor cliffhanger as Kenny is called back to the majors, jeopardizing his budding reconnections with the people around him. Then there's a final twist that makes you wonder if Kenny will repeat the cycle all over again in the next season.

It's hard to fault this excellent first season for anything other than its brevity. Not only are the characters hilarious and their interactions the most cringe-worthily funny outside of a Ricky Gervais/Stephen Merchant collaboration, the show looks great as well. Three of the six episodes are directed by indie darling-cum-budding comedy giant David Gordon Green, who also made Pineapple Express a damn pretty piece of escapism. Obviously, they aren't pulling out their hair over the rule of thirds here, but some establishing shots look downright superb.

My only qualm with this season is that it rushes itself near the end to get to a definite conclusion. Kenny decides to put his former life behind him after a particularly embarrassing night, but the shift is too sudden and the reason not quite valid enough to suggest such a 180. Also, it's episodic nature might turn off viewers looking to return to their favorite moments, as the show needs its whole season to fully work. Nevertheless, this is incredibly daring television, all the more rewarding for how damn funny it is. The idea that they got away with this, even on HBO, is astounding. I look forward to Jody Hill honing his craft in films, as well as seeing Danny McBride get more work, but right now, I can think of nothing I'd rather see them do more than this superb series.

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