Eastbound & Down is so outrageously funny and flashy that it can be easy to forget how fundamentally sad it is at its core. The HBO cult sensation is about a swaggering, self-deluded, much-loved antihero for the ages but it’s also, to some extent, about the tragicomic romance between a broken, depressed, sometimes cruel and viciously self-destructive man and a damaged woman who can’t seem to quit him no matter how callously he treats her or how many times he betrays her.
Bringing a child into the equation raises the stakes of the show exponentially. We expect a minimal level of maturity from parents but Kenny Powers is categorically incapable of growing up. That would be unfortunate if excusable if he was still a carefree single man unencumbered by responsibilities and had only his own rapacious needs to think about but being a father demands a level of responsibility Powers is incapable of.
Yet the characteristically flamboyant opening of the eagerly anticipated third (and supposedly final) season of Eastbound & Down makes it easy to overlook the nagging fact that Kenny Powers is a father at all, let alone a terribly negligent one, in part because Kenny seems to have spent the year since his son Toby’s birth numbing himself with enough booze, pills, and weed to make him forget that he’s shirking the most important responsibilities in his life and leading a ferociously selfish and self-centered existence.
After a season in professional purgatory (or at least Mexico), the opening minute of the new season of Eastbound & Down—a season some doubted would, or should, happen—immerses us headfirst in its new locale (Myrtle Beach, South Carolina) while assuring us that the more things change, the more things stay the same.
We open with a rapid-fire montage of Myrtle Beach landmarks as filtered through Kenny Powers’ horndog redneck aesthetic: Strip clubs, crab shacks, rundown theme parks, the whole gaudy hillbilly carnival affectionately and expertly observed against a backdrop of sleazy, grinding, hard-driving Southern rock.
We’re then reintroduced to our antihero in mock-heroic slow-motion as he incongruously totes a surfboard that not so incongruously combines two of the staples of his sensibility: a rebel flag artlessly juxtaposed with a marijuana leaf. Kenny’s going into the water but he’s not going unarmed: he’s got a knife holstered just below his cut-offs.
When a conservative-looking African-American looks at the spectacle with horror (Kenny is nothing if not a spectacle), Powers guilelessly pipes up, “What’s cracking, y’all! Your base tans are looking nice!” Powers is back in the United Sates but he’s still a fish out of water attempting surf lingo with free-scrubbed Aryan types who look at him with borderline mortification.
We then cut to Powers, who seems to have spent the off-season adding inches to a formidable gut, in his element: on the mound with the bases loaded, a full count, the game on the line and firing heat to win the game.
In the locker room, we’re introduced to Kenny’s new sidekick Shane, a Cajun-drawling catcher who clearly worships at the Church of Kenny Powers and stumblingly attempts to endear himself to his hero by snapping on a mortified black teammate named Darnell with mealy-mouthed quasi-insults about how being black has got to be not fun, “except for the dancing and the big-dick rumors and being good at sports and all that other positive shit.” He’s attempting, poorly, to be good-naturedly sassy in a Kenny Powers-approved fashion without being too racist and not doing a terribly good job of it.
A clearly besotted Powers, whose bond with Shane would be ragingly homoerotic even if he quite literally wasn’t pitching and Shane literally was catching, praises Shane for always entering “situations in a big way!” (He also praises Shane for “burning that fucking monkey” with a quip before diplomatically assuring Darnell that he wasn’t talking about him.) While Shane’s introduction and Sudeikis’ flashy performance didn’t make me forget about Stevie Janowski, Powers’ more offbeat and dissimilar former sidekick, it’s certainly an auspicious introduction.
Shane does indeed enter the situation in a big way, but the reactions of Powers and Shane’s new teammates to their homoerotic antics and stumbling attempts at racial sensitivity are a little too exaggerated for my tastes. The duo’s coworkers are a little too ossified in their uptightness: They look like the sorts whose monocles might shatter in horror at the antics of Groucho in a Marx Brothers movie.
Eastbound & Down is generally at its weakest when it cuts to reaction shots of onlookers with visages frozen in various levels of horror and disgust while Powers sticks his foot progressively deeper and deeper inside his own mouth. By this point, we know what effect Powers’ logorrhea has on teammates, bosses, family members, friends, and April; we don’t need the additional reminder of Powers’ preternatural ability to say the wrong thing and piss people off.
Kenny declares himself a one-woman man but lest we imagine Powers has gone soft or developed ethics the woman in question is a bubble-headed, dimwitted teenager he and Shane (who has a shameless high school girlfriend of his own to very publicly jerk him off under a blanket at the beach) pick up at a high school after class lets out.
Kenny’s comeback reignites his literary ambitions as well. Kenny’s always nursed delusions of grandeur and in a snippet from his latest audio-book of awesomeness he hauls out some appropriately grandiose analogues for ostensible return to big-league glory, crowing, “Chapter 1: the new beginning of the book. There have been many great comebacks throughout history. Jesus was dead but then came back as an all-powerful God-Zombie. Ryan O’Neal had his ups and downs but now is back and better than ever. My story is the story of a raging Christ figure who tore himself off the cross and looked around at the Romans with blood in his eyes and said, ‘My turn now, cocksuckers!’”
Powers reckons he won’t have time to write or dictate the heartwarming human-interest story that will be his return to glory so he ‘pre-wrote that bitch’ to save himself some time later. Kenny’s possibly not even barely legal new paramour wants to do it in the sand dunes but Kenny regretfully informs her, paraphrasing the wisdom of Bell Biv Devoe, “I’ll be able to slap it but I don’t know if I’ll have time to flip it and rub it down. Translation: I’m not sure both of us are going to cum.”
Kenny never evolved emotionally beyond high school: Psychologically he’s a proud, permanent adolescent, now with a girlfriend his mental age, but he is also, inconveniently enough, the father of a needy, demanding baby so he heads over to his child’s first birthday party but not before pre-gaming with some weed and then augmenting his high with pills, beer, and a cheap little bottle of hooch he brandishes unselfconsciously like a security blanket for the deeply alcoholic.
Nowhere is Kenny’s profound ambivalence about being a father and ostensible caretaker to a helpless, vulnerable infant more apparent or uncomfortably funny in a British Office sort of way than in a tragicomic bit of physical comedy where Powers awkwardly resists efforts to thrust his adorable baby in his arms while simultaneously trying to drink from the beer bottle he’s clutching. The message is clear: problem-drinking fuck yeah, responsible parenting, fuck no.
A morose and uncomfortable Kenny gets more and more plastered and stoned during the party while April, in what is eventually revealed to be the key line of dialogue in the episode, asks Kenny’s sister-in-law Cassie if she ever regrets having had children.
Cassie doesn’t just answer no; she pretty much recoils from the question. For April, it’s an uncomfortably painful and awkwardly truthful moment since society and convention demands that parents, especially middle-to-upper-middle class mothers, universally consider children the best thing that has ever happened to them and a miracle that puts all the bullshit of life into proper perspective. But the truth is that plenty of parents regret the innately burdensome and involved task of having to raise children, especially if the pregnancy wasn’t planned and the father is an overgrown, drug-addled overgrown child whose attitude towards parenting is neglectful at best.
True to form, Kenny delivers a woefully embarrassing monologue at the birthday party, blaming April for the dissolution of their family and for not properly appreciating the sacrifices he made to try to keep them together—most notably not fucking anyone else for three whole months. This monologue is one of the weaker moments in the première, in no small part because it’s accompanied by lots of redundant reaction shots of partygoers looking appropriately mortified, and it digs Kenny into an even deeper hole with the mother of his child and what is, clearly, for better or worse (I would argue it’s for the better for Kenny and for the worse for April) his soulmate, teenaged nymphomaniac girlfriend or not.
But there is no hole so deep April’s pathological attachment to Kenny can’t pull him out of, so despite the endless procession of deal breakers that constitute Kenny’s behavior toward her through the years she nevertheless finds herself acquiescing when he offers her a night away from the drudgery of raising their child single-handedly.
I had a hard time accepting April agreeing to go out on a date with Kenny despite her seeming addiction to him. Surely she’d draw the line somewhere, right? Especially after he’d just publicly humiliated her for what must have been the umpteenth time?
But love and obsession and loneliness are not rational emotions and for all his raging faults, Kenny is a shit-ton of fun. True, it’s the kind of fun that leaves you with a pounding headache the next morning, a world of regrets, and an enduring sense of shame but he’s nevertheless a powder-keg of illicit, naughty enjoyment all the same and after a year of shouldering the immense responsibilities of parenthood single-handedly April is clearly in the market for naughty fun, even if it’s with the asshole responsible for her predicament. In a pointed moment on the booze cruise Kenny cavalierly takes her on, Kenny obliviously tells her he lives every day like a party without realizing that he’s only able to do so because he’s so absent as a parent and because April is forced to live everyday as an overwhelmed single mom.
April is a mother and a teacher so we expect much more from her than Kenny. Hell, there are manatees and serial killers we expect more from than Kenny Powers. But as April’s comment about regretting parenthood betrays, she’s still, deep down, the 10th-grade wild child Kenny reminds her used to smoke joints and drink whiskey and get off on seeing him pitch.
It’s this April that shotguns a beer on the booze cruise (God bless Eastbound & Down: what other show could segue seamlessly from Lee Hazlewood at his most poignantly bittersweet to 2 Live Crew’s “Pop That Pussy”) and then embarks on a deliriously decadent, gloriously over-the-top night of beer-swilling, whiskey-chugging, coke-snorting debauchery with Kenny as the goateed devil over her shoulder drunkenly indulging and encouraging her worst instincts.
It’s this April that gets into a full-on catfight with a portly mother at a miniature golf course when the mother in question tells her, “I feel sorry for your child.” Them’s fighting words in any language and in any culture. A night of willful regression with Kenny brings out something in April she thought she might have lost in the long, exhausting road to parenthood. He brings out the Kenny Powers in her, which is both enormous fun and enormously dangerous.
Back in his bachelor pad that night (he of course has the equally irresponsible Shane baby-sit) Kenny imagines he’s about to end a night of triumph with sex before one of those tonal shifts the show does so well; instead of preparing for a hookup, Kenny finds April looking at their baby with heartbreaking, overwhelming maternal pride. She may have willfully lost herself that night but she’s still a mother, with all the wonder and reverence that entails. Kenny is fucked-up but not too fucked-up to tell April, with real conviction, “I know we’re both drunk but I’m just going to say it: I’ve been lost without you.”
That bracing tonal shift extends to a gut-punch of an ending. Kenny wakes up with a pounding hangover the next day to discover a used condom on the floor (seeming proof that the evening ended as he wished), an ambiguously worded note from April about how she “isn’t herself” (something the night before proved), and, most distressingly of all from Kenny’s relentlessly self-interested perspective, the screams of his own baby.
Notice how April’s note doesn’t say she “wasn’t herself” the night before. That would imply what had happened was a momentary lapse. No, she writes she “isn’t herself” which implies that her monumental lapse in judgment (at the risk of being judgmental, relatively new mothers probably should not do cocaine, pills, swill hard liquor, get into knock-down, drag-out fistfights or go vice for vice with a Jedi master of self-destruction like Kenny Powers) might continue indefinitely. That has fascinating ramifications for the season ahead.
Despite its prodigiously talented supporting and guest cast (an ensemble that now includes Saturday Night Live regular and newly minted cinematic leading man Sudeikis), Eastbound & Down is still the Kenny Powers show all the way. Yet on a sometimes shaky but ultimately powerful, hilarious, and promising season première, April does the seemingly impossible: She upstages Kenny Powers, and that’s only partially because of her incredible rack (I’m sorry, it would feel terribly dishonest not to mention it at least once). Welcome back, Eastbound & Down. I can’t wait to see where you go from here.
- Speaking of the show’s gifted supporting cast, John Hawkes’ star has risen meteorically since the show’s beginning and will rise even further after he’s nominated for (or wins) an Oscar for his incredibly moving turn as a sex-seeking poet confined to an iron lung in the shatteringly powerful comedy-drama/Sundance favorite The Surrogate. Yet he’s given almost nothing to do this episode.
- This season, Parks And Recreation writer, Comedy Bang Bang fan favorite, stand-up comedian, and Phish superfan Harris Wittels has been brought on as consulting producer (joining returning consulting producer/Your Highness director David Gordon Green). I love that guy and look forward to his contributions.
- Great use of The Ying-Yang Twins’ “The Whisper Song” for a misdirect. Great use of pop music in general. As someone who watches about seven shows semi-regularly (one of which is Teen Mom 2), I can confidently assert that Eastbound & Down makes better use of music than any show on television. (Also, jet-skis and four-wheelers.Eastbound & Down has far and away the best melancholy jet-skiing sequences in all of television.)
- I love that Kenny and Shane pattern their relationship after the Goose-Maverick friendship in the famously homoerotic Top Gun
- Kenny referring to the backyard magic show as a “sorcery show” cracked me up
- “You got an airbrushed T-shirt of some kid with Down Syndrome and a black girl with your names on it!”
- “Hey, we’re parents. Suck our dicks!”
- “This gorgeous sunset is rocking my nuts off.”
- “Hello young boy. How have you been? April. We’re kind of running out of shit to say to each other here!”
- “Publishing is how they make books and before they can get it to a wide audience they have to make a bunch of copies of it.”
- “Look at those crazy kids. Running around like freed slaves!”
- “Look at y’all jumping around like a bunch of child molesters at Chuck E. Cheese!”
- “Looks like KP’s bout to titty-fuck this wave. Adios!”
- “N-word please! Sometimes these shoulders get tired of carrying the entire team.”
- I don’t know about y’all, but I am fucking psyched about the prospect of a whole new season of Eastbound & Down. I love this show. I do miss Stevie Janowski, though.