Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
When Eastbound& Down premiered in early 2009, it seemed to be inviting the question: How long can testosterone-fueled repulsiveness and radioactive self-delusion remain funny? After four years that have shown Danny McBride growing increasingly reluctant to play anything else, the question the show raises has become: Can you really make a career out of it? The third season was announced as the last of the series, and Nathan Rabin’s review of the season finale was a tender, heartfelt eulogy for a character—McBride’s washed-up baseball player, Kenny Powers—who wasn’t expected to return. Well, he’s back, and he hasn’t changed, though the fact that McBride imagines he ever could change remains one of the show’s favorite running jokes.
This is made clear in the opening scenes of the new—and once again, reportedly final—season. McBride is now living a life of small-town bliss with the love of his life, Katy Mixon, and a couple of kids. On his way to work, he’s sneered at by a leering punk and his hot girlfriend, who call him “faggot.” When he gets to work, his boss at a car-rental agency gives him shit, and McBride has to take it. It’s pretty clear, unless you’re an Eastbound & Down virgin, these scenes are like the sequence in a Hitchcock film showing the people who settle in around a suitcase that the audience knows has a bomb in it. The whole point of seeing McBride trying to compromise with the world and put up with the little indignities that make up much of a normal person’s average day is to see what the inevitable explosion looks like. When it comes, it starts slow, like a gas leak, and involves McBride choosing to take the box of donuts his boss has set out in the break room, for all to share as some kind of personal attack on his awesomeness.
The funniest moments in the season premiere have to do with McBride’s efforts to convince himself that his sedate new life is actually the ultimate proof of said awesomeness. “This is a story,” he announces in an opening voiceover narration, “of a man who won.” He’s won, he insists, by being true enough to his heart to walk away from money, fame, and adventure, and to prove it, he’s working on an autobiographical screenplay celebrating the enormity of his achievement. (“Credits roll. Beside them, on-set blooper reel plays, in a small box.”) Meanwhile, the dragon is trying to scratch its way out. His wife, horrified to learn that he’s applied for a bank loan to build a swimming pool, tells him, “We don’t have money for a pool.” Attempting to seem reasonable, he explains, “That’s why I applied for a loan.” McBride has one of his rare poignant moments, alone by himself in the backyard, doing his best to get away from it all by swimming laps in the pleasant grassy air where his pool ought to be.
Eastbound & Down doesn’t fully fit itself back into its groove—or, depending on how you see it, its rut—until McBride’s worshipful best friend, Steve Little, returns. The whole point of Little’s character is to show just what kind of pathetic, miserable excuse for a man would see McBride as a role model, and Little throws himself into his work, mugging and whining and wheedling and turning himself into a hard-to-take cartoon. The new Mephistopheles in McBride’s life is actually Ken Marino, as the host of a sports-discussion TV show. One of Marino’s regular panelists, played by Omar J. Dorsey, is hijacking the show, and Marino invites McBride on, hoping he’ll win the inevitable battle of the obnoxious macho titans and bring Dorsey down a peg. It’s Marino who fully flushes the old McBride out of hiding, by giving him a shot to rekindle his stardom and a forum where he can strut his stuff. But it’s Steve Little who persuades him to kick off this new chapter of his life by buying an $8000 car, so he can arrive at the TV studio in style.
Dorsey is black—Marino accuses him of turning his series into a “minstrel show”—and when McBride’s triumphant takedown of him occurs, it has ugly racial overtones that make the shots of the uniformly white studio audience cheering him on seem kind of creepy. This creepiness is a near-constant in the work of series co-creator Jody Hill (the writer-director of Observe And Report), and while it lends an exciting edge to his comedy, it’s not clear how fully controlled it is. Is he deliberately playing with fire in a brave new way, or does he just not have the greatest command of tone?
Many of the smaller performances—especially at the car-rental place and among the members of Marino’s panel—are cartoonish in a sloppy, amateurish way. In fact, viewers may be inordinately grateful for Ken Marino’s smooth underplaying and the way he can deliver a line like “Gonna fuck some ladies in the ass” in a way that makes it sound like he’s on a late-night edition of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Season four of Eastbound & Down looks more promising than season three, which was blighted by Don Johnson’s sustained, greasy wink of a performance as McBride’s reprobate father. (He looked as if he could barely keep from doubling over at the hilarious idea of a cool stud like himself playing this loser’s old man, or anybody’s.) But will it be funny, or just “interesting,” in a pushing-the-gross-out-comedy-envelope way? Time will tell, dawg.
Created by: Ben Best, Jody Hill, Danny McBride
Starring: Danny McBride, Steve Little, Michael Beasley
Debuting: Sunday, September 29 at 10:00 p.m. Eastern on HBO
Format: Single-camera half-hour comedy
Two episodes watched for review