Will Ferrell is both one of the funniest dudes alive and a comedy-savvy producer and kingmaker who played a huge role in Danny McBride’s ascent from low-budget indie comedy weirdo to mainstream comedy star, first by championing and distributing McBride’s ferociously flawed but entertaining starring debut The Foot Fist Way and later by executive producing Eastbound & Down and taking on the supporting role of Ashley Schaeffer, sleazeball car-dealership owner and Kenny Powers’ arch-nemesis. Ferrell has used his enormous power and bankability to do a world of good for the team of Danny McBride and Jody Hill (and to a lesser extent, Ben Best) and, by extension, comedy and humanity as a whole, so he can be forgiven for more or less singlehandedly ruining the 15th episode of Eastbound & Down with a showboating performance that relegates Kenny Powers to the background.
It might seem a little silly to argue that an individual episode of Eastbound & Down goes too far, since going too far is at the core of the show’s ballsy, swaggering aesthetic, but “Chapter 15” is so relentlessly cartoonish (in an uncomfortable way) that it sometimes feels like a live-action adaptation of an animated Eastbound & Down adaptation. The show is so outrageous and taboo-shattering that it can generally do just about anything but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it should do anything. Even a show with a reality this flexible should adhere to some limitations.
“Chapter 15” at least begins on a promising note, with Kenny in a state of complete panic after April leaves him alone with their 1-year-old following a night of drugged-up, drunken carnal bliss. Kenny is of course characteristically overwhelmed by the responsibilities of fatherhood. Hell, he’s generally overwhelmed by any responsibility, let alone one this crucial and important.
When the baby pukes, for example, Kenny soberly volunteers, “I think his body is rejecting the Pepsi.” Kenny is ill-prepared to handle anything that doesn’t involve baseball or the seamier accoutrements of stardom so he does what he always does when confronted with unwanted responsibilities: he tries to shirk them off on someone else.
April is, of course, the first and most likely target so he breaks into her home and declares “Party’s over. I’m returning your child” out loud to what he imagines is April without realizing that April was implicitly sending him that very message, consciously or otherwise, when she left him with Toby after their night of sin.
When he doesn’t find April in her home he heads over to the office where she works and then to her old school, where Terrence is leading a trust exercise because, as he enthuses gingerly to his staff, “I think the reason we had that fistfight in the supply closet is because Robin has trust issues.” That’s the kind of great throwaway line that makes Eastbound & Down such a consistent delight. Andy Daly’s smiling bastard Terrence doesn’t have much screentime but that doesn’t keep him from nearly stealing the episode with his unabashed, uncomplicated joy at seeing his enemy and his ex-girlfriend in such a terrible pickle of a jam. Terrence can barely conceal his delight when he gazes at Toby and tells him, “Good luck to you, with your life. It’s not going to be easy. Because both of your parents are horrible.”
With April missing in action, Kenny resorts to plans B and C, first inquiring if his family-man brother and sister-in-law will simply add Toby to their tribe and raise him as their own. When they refuse, Kenny seeks out the whereabouts of his long-lost sidekick Stevie.
Kenny visits Stevie’s apoplectic wife and offers her, as a goodwill gift, a copy of the sixth-season DVD of Friends he purloined from April’s house during his break-in. Kenny volunteers that it’s a “Criterion Collections” disc, which is a funny line but also something a proud redneck like Kenny would never say. When Kenny sees Stevie’s wife in wildly unflattering purple FUBU and tells her “Why are you wearing FUBU? That’s for them, by them. You’re assimilating weird. You’re like a goddamned strange sort of Mexican Grimace” it’s similarly clever but I doubt Kenny would ever use a word like “assimilating”—especially correctly.
But those minor inconsistencies are nothing compared to the surrealistic, fantastical direction the episode eventually travels. First, Kenny attempts to get rid of Toby by putting him in a basket and attempting to float him downriver. Needless to say, Kenny seems to have gotten most of his ideas about parenting from the Old Testament and Willow (he tries to cheer up his soon-to-be-abandoned son by assuring him, “You have a destiny much greater than anything I can afford you. Your fate will be akin to those who have come before you. The greats like Moses, or the baby from Willow. And other people too. May the future Gods watch over you, son.”)
Kenny quickly abandons his idea of abandoning his son in such a callous way, and while he may be the world’s least fit parent, I doubt he would do something that so clearly might lead to the death of his child. “Chapter 15” gets increasingly cartoonish, but the worst affronts to even the faintest notion of plausibility are yet to come.
Our scared-shitless antihero finds Stevie, who he hopes will raise his child for him, working for Ashley at the Kia dealership Ashley’s now running after his more respectable, upscale dealership was shut down due to price gouging, fraud, and more dramatically, “allegations of prostitution, semi-automatic weapons found with trace levels of cocaine dust. Those are minor details that don’t need to be discussed any further.”
As with Ricky Gervais’ appearances on Louie, there’s a definite element of, “Star coming through! Star coming through! Everyone clear the way because there’s a star coming through!” to Ferrell’s turn as Ashley. Despite the Edgar Winter wig and drawl, Ferrell doesn’t exactly disappear into the role. It’s a star turn pure and simple, one which irritatingly takes the focus off the show’s real star without ever quite upstaging him.
Stevie’s job at Ashley’s dealership is humiliating, but it’s nothing compared to what the boss has him do at a dinner party for Ashley’s South Korean overlords. At a soiree seemingly designed to establish Ashley’s status as the Marquis De Sade of South Carolina, Ashley has Stevie dress in drag, donning a kimono and kabuki makeup to play a delicate flower of the Orient. He then promises the assembled businessmen that Stevie’d be more than happy to give them lap dances later on.
Eastbound & Down specializes in the comedy of discomfort, sexism, and racism, but this sequence manages to be excruciatingly uncomfortable and wildly offensive without being funny, in part because Ashley’s character is so similar to Kenny, minus the cornpone charm. Shane is also awfully similar to Kenny, but it makes sense that Kenny’s adoring sidekick would slavishly emulate him (this goes for Stevie as well) and/or be attracted to someone he has so much in common with, whereas Ferrell’s performance suggests Ferrell was simply improvising in a Kenny Powers-like key and the show was too blown away by his hammy shenanigans to cut his adlibs and improvisation even if they completely dominate the second half of the episode. To its detriment, this episode of Eastbound & Down momentarily becomes The Will Ferrell Show Featuring A Special Appearance By Kenny Powers.
It gets worse: the show has never felt as flamboyantly, egregiously cartoonish, campy and over the top than it is does when Ashley turns a canon—yes, a fucking canon—on a portly, aged intern he accuses of having an improper relationship with his broad caricature of a motherly African-American maid. “Chapter 15” begins with Kenny in a very real predicament and ends with an extended, misbegotten detour into the land of make-believe and pretend, with plot twists and characters that would seem ridiculous and far-fetched in that aforementioned, theoretical Eastbound & Down animated spin-off. In a show ostensibly about human beings on planet Earth, however, they feel borderline insulting .
Of course, this is still Eastbound & Down, so there’s a lot of funny stuff in the first half of the episode, but the second half’s strained outrageousness and descent into wacky surreality gave me nightmarish flashbacks to Your Highness, McBride’s woeful, most recent feature-film collaboration with David Gordon Green, who not so coincidentally also directed this episode. “Chapter 15” was a rare episode-length misstep for a show rarely on unsure footing. Let’s hope it rights the ship next episode. Ferrell obviously appears on Eastbound & Down because he loves it, but his appearance here sinks an episode that should wrestle with the consequences of Kenny’s irresponsibility instead of fleeing even farther into the world of escapism and make-pretend.
- I was a little disturbed at how much better Stevie looks as an Asian woman than as a Caucasian man. Nonetheless, I found his humiliation too disturbing to be funny.
- Ashley seems to make a special point of surrounding himself with offensive stereotypes from a bygone era.
- If we don’t see Ashley again, I wouldn’t mind at all
- I did enjoy Kenny blaming the failure of his self-published memoir of his Mexican adventures on the lack of Remo Williams-style adventure as well as its Mexican setting (a common weakness of Mexican adventures tales).
- Shane’s world-famous pussy rocket is sort of John Travolta’s “pussy wagon” from Grease adjusted for inflation.