Well, this is awkward.
The last time we saw Kenny Powers was actually supposed to be the last time we ever saw Kenny Powers. Having finally achieved his goal of getting back to the major leagues, Kenny strutted off the mound in the middle of an at-bat, faked his own death for reasons understandable only to him, and returned to April, ready to settle down and live happily ever after in cozy domesticity. Oh, most of us probably suspected that wouldn’t last, but it was closure of a sort. And that’s how the series ended, at least until the surprise announcement that HBO would bring back Eastbound & Down for a fourth and (really this time) final season.
So the big question this bonus season has to answer is: Is there any good reason for it to exist? Can it be justified creatively, or is it really just a business decision? Co-creators Danny McBride and Jody Hill insist that this fourth season is the story they intended to tell in the third, until availability issues with Katy Mixon (who co-stars on Mike & Molly) forced them to change course. One thing is clear from “Chapter 22”: McBride and Hill didn’t bring Kenny back just to squeeze a few more cheap laughs out of him. There are cheap laughs, of course, but a downbeat mood of disillusion and frustration permeates the season premiere.
As the episode opens, Kenny Powers has traded in his waverunner for a ride-on lawnmower, and his wild life on the road for a house in the cookie-cutter suburbs. He’s still driving a truck, but the radio is tuned to NPR; he’s still rocking the curly mullet and ratty goatee, but his tie and nametag render him unrecognizable from the neck down. He’s got a regular day job at a car rental agency, and he and April now have two children. He manages to keep his cool when a tattooed thug challenges him to a drag race at a stoplight, but even from the opening minutes, it’s clear that the old rage is still bubbling under the surface: Kenny Fuckin’ Powers still hasn’t gotten his due.
The ensuing half-hour suggests that, like the many HBO anti-heroes who preceded him, from Tony Soprano to Larry David, Kenny Powers can’t change who he is. He’s been emasculated (a turn of events brilliantly encapsulated in the image of Kenny clipping the truck nuts from his ride), and is now taking orders from a smarmy, earring-wearing doofus while April wins awards for being the real breadwinner of the family. “This is the story of a man who won,” he tells us in voiceover, but Kenny’s resentment keeps boiling over at all the most inappropriate moments. When April accepts her award for selling the most houses (an honor Kenny downplays as being “a regional thing”), her heartfelt acceptance speech in which she praises her husband for his support and willingness to do his part on the domestic front just feels like another kick in the nuts to KP.
When Kenny runs into former teammate Guy Young (Ken Marino), now the successful host of a sports-talk show, he reaches his breaking point. After accompanying Guy and his fellow talking heads on a night of VIP-style clubbing, he’s ready to reclaim the life of glory, riches, and horrible behavior that’s been denied him for so long. He methodically mushes the donuts his boss brought to work, he takes on the drag-racing challenge and promptly escalates it into a demolition derby, and he quits his job, retreating to the basement with his tackle box full of drugs.
“Chapter 22” is basically a set-up episode, but it remains to be seen whether it’s setting up something new for Kenny Powers or just a recreation of his greatest hits. The tone of this first episode certainly suggests that McBride and Hill have bigger things in mind for the fourth season than simply a delivery system for dick jokes (although this is one of the few shows that would even try to get a laugh out of a line like “I want to give this whole table AIDS,” let alone succeed). Can Kenny break from his HBO forebears and actually make a positive change in his life? And if so, will the show still be funny? Stay tuned.
True to form, Kenny doesn’t stick with his inane “faking his death” plan for very long at all. How could he resist crashing his own funeral? (We get our only brief glimpses of John Hawkes and Steve Little here, but it’s safe to assume Stevie will be a big part of the story going forward.)
Loved Kenny’s skeptical reaction to the laughter at April’s “You really like me!” joke in her acceptance speech.
“Don’t air-punch me! You’re not doing it good-naturedly!”