Written by Musgo Del Jefe
Ben Best, Jody Hill, and Danny McBride have managed to do something that doesn't happen often enough with TV shows: they've pleasantly surprised me. The creators of the relatively unknown Foot Fist Way put together what is essentially a film divided into six episodes for HBO. In fact, the episodes are only numbered, instead of titled, lending itself to more continuous storytelling. Each episode picks up right at the end of the previous one.
The first episode covers quite a bit of ground in the first three minutes. But that's part of its brilliance. Danny McBride plays Kenny Powers. The Kenny Powers story follows just enough of some real-life characters that viewers can fill in the details. Kenny is in large part former Atlanta Brave John Rocker and bits of other baseball and sports jerks (including a nice homage to the Kenny Rogers incident with a cameraman in Texas). Kenny's career tops out at the very beginning with his 100-mph fastball as he helps his team clinch the World Series. What transpires over the next couple minutes of the opening montage is his fall from grace in the baseball world until he is with Seattle (the horror!) and can't throw out of the 80s. Eventually we see him stooping to moving in with his brother and subbing at the local high school.
The title of the series, Eastbound & Down brings to mind the Smokey and the Bandit films. But more importantly, it doesn't have anything to do with baseball or teaching Physical Education at the high school. I think that naming it anything to do with sports would have needlessly painted this story into a corner. The title tells you nothing and allows the characters to go in any direction without the viewer feeling cheated. The pilot episode is the weakest of the six episodes. Even with the simple set-up montage, there are lots of stories to introduce and it feels like they are cramming a lot of information into each scene. The story has to introduce Kenny, his brother, his high-school girlfriend who now works at the high school, the principal (who's engaged to his old girlfriend), Stevie (a teacher who idolizes Kenny), and other North Carolina friends. The characters are all cliche to begin. The story starts off all about Kenny (who's all about himself) and the supporting cast seems very thinly drawn.
At least until the writers hit their stride in the second episode. So many things happen in this episode that set in motion events that will lead us straight into Season Two (announced in April). The first is one of my favorite storytelling devices in recent memory. Kenny likes to listen to the book-on-tape of the book he wrote during his playing days, "I'm F—ing In, You're F—ing Out". This device serves to show how shallow and self-absorbed Kenny is but it also serves as a kind of narration for the episodes. The viewer can contrast the "old Kenny" against the "new Kenny".
The first two episodes continue to build up the foul-mouthed and self-centered personality. The Kenny Powers of the first episode and a half borders on unlikable. But then something starts to turn. Kenny is still in love with his high-school sweetheart April. His character being completely adolescent makes this seem even more like a teenage crush. And somehow it's endearing. Kenny is oblivious to the fact that she's engaged to his boss, the principal. But there's one thing that can always redeem a jerk. A bigger jerk. And that jerk is played by Will Ferrell as Ashley Schaefer, the owner of Schaefer Motors (the biggest car lot in town). Ferrell is made for this role because it requires overacting to the hilt. Ashley treats Kenny as a commodity and Kenny doesn't understand this either. In the second episode, Kenny refuses to throw a fastball at Schaefer Motors for Ashley. This self-doubt at his abilities and his comeback makes him vulnerable too.
The third episode marks what should be the second act of the film and it really feels like the story is taking over. Kenny has found the beginning of an unlikely friendship with Stevie and Kenny has started his training for his "comeback". Unfortunately the training involves a poorly edited video by Stevie and a healthy dose of steroids for Kenny. The fourth episode branches the story out just a bit further. We see more of the supporting cast here, including a good deal of April and her fiance, Terrance (the principal). They are having a BBQ that Kenny finds a way to get himself invited to. The BBQ ends up being the fulcrum of the series. All the relationships change in the course of this episode. Stevie becomes more and more like Kenny. Kenny and April have a "premature" start to their relationship. And Terrance and April will split partially because of this. But once again, despite his arrogance and terrible treatment of others, Kenny can get his feelings hurt so easily over April. These vulnerable moments are climaxed with Kenny out of gas in the middle of a lake on his jet ski. The episode ends with the end of his book-on-tape representing Kenny's total loss of confidence – the one thing he never seemed to lack.
The third act starts a new book-on-tape. After Kenny's "moment of clarity" in the previous episode, things start to turn around. Once again, it's the Will Ferrell character, Ashley Schaeffer who gets it rolling. The same guy that started to break Kenny down will be indirectly responsible for building him back up. Ashley sets up a pitching/batting contest with Kenny's nemesis from his playing days. Kenny is able to survive the showdown in a clever nod to The Natural, get the girl and by winning the girl, get his fastball back. Now our hero, you'll actually feel yourself rooting for this jerk by the fifth episode, has everything back again. In the sixth episode, he's on his way back to the major leagues. But unlike other TV shows, Kenny doesn't learn any lessons from his fall. In fact, Kenny comes full circle to the character we knew at the beginning. The season ends as Kenny leaves with April to pursue his dream. Or does he?
I found lots to like in this first season. The six-episode arc works well for the first time around and I'm glad it wasn't 12-15 episodes. There's a flow to the story in essentially three hours of show. Kenny is portrayed as a character with no redeeming qualities. And yet we see them through the show. Kenny doesn't seem to deserve redemption and yet the viewer can't help but cheer for it to happen. The writing here is above par for the type of show that it appears to be on the surface. It's easy to create an arrogant jerk; it's much harder to make us like the arrogant jerk. The closest I can come to this in current pop culture is either Curb Your Enthusiasm or the British version of The Office. By the time The Office came to America, Michael Scott became much less of a jerk and more of a likable buffoon. Kudos also to HBO for sticking with this beyond the essentially weak pilot episode.
The DVD release contains enough bonuses to make up for the unusually short season. There are the usual "Making Of" shorts, including "Stevie's Dark Secret" – a deleted scene that's disturbing and a must-see; commercials for Schaeffer Motors; and audio commentaries by the creators for three episodes.
I look forward to the return of Kenny in Season Two. They've created a fun ensemble of characters with lots of directions to go. And Kenny is still not a redeemed character. But we love him for it. As he says, "I'm a bulletproof tiger, man."