"Eastbound and Down" Knocks It Out of the Park

Danny McBride and his partners mix realistic characters and a little shtick to make a good piece of comedy

Kenny Powers is a major-league asshole—literally. As the bravura montage that opens the pilot episode of Eastbound and Down (HBO) reveals, he's a redneck pitcher (think John Rocker with Randy Johnson's 'do) who hits it big in the bigs and lets it go straight to his head. Inflammatory statements, team hopping, drugs, 'roids, the works, until he finds himself dragging his washed-up ass and his beloved leopard-print jet ski back to his hometown of Shelby, N.C., to move in with his working-stiff brother and take a job as a middle-school phys ed teacher. It's a premise both jejune (fish-out-of-water moves in with unsuspecting nuclear family, one of the hoariest sitcom set-ups ever) and plain old bizarre (leopard-print jet ski?), and the six half-hour episodes it supports seemed to gain no watercooler cachet when the first season of the series aired earlier this year. But Kenny Powers and Eastbound and Down have three things to recommend them another chance on DVD: Danny McBride, Ben Best, and Jody Hill.

For those of you who aren't comedy trainspotters, that's the acting/writing/directing trio behind 2006 comedy cult hit The Foot Fist Way. The three collaborators' North Carolina-shot super-indie calling card won them influential Hollywood fans such as Will Ferrell and led to McBride landing roles in big-ticket comedies Pineapple Express, Tropic Thunder, and Land of the Lost. It also earned the trio a green light for Observe and Report, a black comedy that crashed and burned with multiplex audiences expecting a jolly Seth Rogan bromance, and for Eastbound and Down, an altogether more successful if no less discomfiting take on their shtick.

And a shtick it is, but it's a pretty good one. McBride, abetted by actor/writer Best and director/writer Hill, specializes in mouthy peckerwoods whose self-importance bears no relation to their schlubby reality. Unlike Foot Fist Way's forever-scuffling small-town tae kwon do instructor Fred Simmons, Kenny Powers has tasted success—indeed, he's gulped and snorted enough to totally ruin him—yet the resemblance is unmistakable.

See, Kenny is having a hard time being humbled. He can't talk to women without either hitting on them or insulting them (or kinda both), and he can't help but belittle the ordinary life that his brother Dustin (Deadwood's John Hawkes) troubles to welcome him into. He bumps into sweet, pneumatic high-school girlfriend April (Katy Mixon) and prepares to mack only to discover that she's engaged to his new boss, nebbish-y Principal Cutler (a spot-on Andrew Daly). The closest thing he can muster for a star entourage is burnout bartender/drug dealer Clegg (Best) and maladjusted band teacher Stevie (Steve Little), and the nearest substitute for the once-unending flow of hot ladies is town skank Tracy (the game Sylvia Jefferies). Each episode brings a new indignity: forced into servitude as a lowball pitchman for a car dealer, selling his career memorabilia on eBay at palooka prices, struggling to get his long-lost pitch back, pining in vain for wised-up April, even being asked to part with his beloved jet ski to pay a few bills.

Eastbound and Down draws maybe too heavily on a couple of lesser aspects of the shtick, most notably saying nasty things in front of little kids for a laugh, and Kenny is pretty horrible, even for a McBride/Best/Hill creation. Whenever you think they won't go there, wherever that is, you can rest assured they will. But as with Fred Simmons, you end up feeling for Kenny. The contrast between his self-image (athlete, sex god, champion) and his actual self (tubby, a hapless himbo, has-been) is so vast that it defuses his crass bluster a little. Plus, as the writers and directors (Hill and Pineapple Express' David Gordon Green) deftly reveal, the strains of arriving at the bottom have exposed that vestigial part of Kenny that isn't so invulnerably badass. In a scene where he flips out over one of Justin's kids playing on his jet ski in the driveway, Kenny starts out at profane full-tilt and then, as the cameras roll and the family stares appalled, realizes that he's overreacting for any number of reasons and finishes by bellowing, "I love you, but I'm not going to stop yelling because that would mean I lost the fight!"

It helps that McBride is so good. He may only play one basic character, at least to date, but he's a gifted bullshitter and a superb physical comedian; the scene in which he shows up at a middle-school dance, rolling on E, and tries to woo back April belongs on some kind of '00s classic comedy clip-reel. It also helps that everything around Kenny grounds him as much as the plot. Hawkes is so low-key perfect as High Life-sipping good ol' boy Dustin that you want to hug him, and as the episodes progress, Jennifer Irwin turns a cookie-cutter role as Dustin's prim, born-again wife into a three-dimensional character with something to add to the story. And, as with Foot Fist Way, Eastbound's small-town South actually looks and feels like the genuine deal, from the tract home Dustin and Cassie live to the accents on the bit players.

Indeed, when Ferrell shows up for an extended cameo as an eccentric BMW dealer, his star power and non sequitur style feel beamed in from some alien place. It remains to be seen whether McBride, Best, and Hill have more in them than Fred/Kenny variations, but roll-film-and-improvise character-driven comedy with something like real characters is worth checking out.