I’ve never actually seen “The Foot Fist Way,” the motion picture which really served to bring Danny McBride to prominence (he wrote and starred in the film), but when a review written by someone whose opinion you trust opens with the lines, “The first 30 minutes of ‘The Foot Fist Way’ are as intolerable as anything released in the last ten years,” it’s the kind of sentiment that keeps a movie from working its way up the hierarchy of your Netflix queue. I have, however, seen and loved “Tropic Thunder,” and I’ve heard a lot of good things about “Pineapple Express,” so I do still have a certain degree of respect for Mr. McBride. Therefore, when I heard that he was going to be starring in a new series for HBO that would be executive-produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, the duo who have brought us “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” “Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” and “Stepbrothers,” there was every reason to believe that the combination would prove to be a successful one.
“Eastbound and Down” certainly starts promisingly, with a flashback laying out the career of Kenny Powers, a major-league baseball player who has seen the highest heights one can reach in the sport, including cover stories for every magazine from Highlights to Cat Fancy to American Woodworker. “Everyone wanted a piece of my shit,” says Powers, in a voiceover, describing himself as a man with “an arm like a fucking cannon.” Unfortunately, as with so many athletes who get a taste of glory and then dive headlong into the trough, Powers’ ego expands to a size far larger than his home state of North Carolina. He begins to blame his failures on his team, so he leaves Atlanta, becomes a free agent, and starts a career freefall which seems him moving from New York (“You mean Jew York?”), Baltimore and San Francisco (“I gotta tell ya, I thought the blacks in Baltimore were bad, but it turns out they’re nothing compared to these fags they got in San Francisco”), Boston, and Seattle.
Seattle, however, proved too much for the man, and after proving directly responsible for the team’s devastating loss against Los Angeles, things fade to black for Powers, and after a caption which reads, “Several shitty years later,” he find that he’s now out of baseball and has carried his remaining belongings back home to the state known as North Kakalaki to work as a middle-school substitute teacher…and it’s at this point that feelings about “Eastbound and Down” will begin to vary wildly.
It’s one thing for Kenny Powers to have a massive ego when his situation in no way warrants having one. When he steps in front of a gym class for his first substituting gig and asks if there are any questions, someone wants to know if they’re going to have to run the mile, and he snaps, “I’m talking about me. These are questions about me personally as a superstar. You know, you’ve got this moment in time here with an American icon…and you’re going to waste it asking questions about the fucking mile?” Now, that’s funny. Even watching someone in a downward spiral can be funny if it’s done right…and the fact that Kenny’s the kind of guy who’s on the verge of bankruptcy yet refuses to sell his jet ski is indeed a funny character conceit. The problems with the fact that he’s constantly offering up comments which anyone would seem socially inappropriate and is totally oblivious to other people’s reactions to them…well, frankly, that gets old pretty quick.
There is potential for the show, however. Anyone who’s actually lived in or near North Carolina will very much recognize how real the show feels, both in dialogue and in its settings; Kenny Powers may be an exaggerated version of Carolina white trash, but…well, he ain’t that exaggerated. There’s a great scene where we meet one of Kenny’s old cronies, who proves to be a pharmaceutical connection and also used to be a roadie for Widespread Panic. The romantic triangle between Kenny, his ex-girlfriend (who’s one of the other teachers at the school and is played by the super-cute Katy Mixon), and her fiance (the school principal, played by Andrew Daly, late of “Mad TV”) is about as stereotypical-sitcom as it gets, but it’ll be interesting to see how the dynamic between Kenny and his brother’s family plays out. (In particular, I’m hoping we see his nephew’s growing terror of him play out.) And as has been widely reported, not only by me but by every other TV critic on the planet, Mr. Ferrell will be turning up in the very near future…but don’t go looking for him to pop up in tonight’s premiere. He won’t rear his head ’til Episode #2.
(I’m mildly surprised that HBO has only sent out a single episode of “Eastbound and Down” to critics, since they usually send out the entire season of their series for review, but in this case, I think it’s less because they’re afraid of the critical reception and more because they figure people will be more likely to tune in for the Ferrell footage if it hasn’t already been leaked onto YouTube. I can’t blame them for that. But this Will is hoping that that Will doesn’t turn out to be the only reason to stick with the show.)
“Eastbound and Down” is clearly not your typical HBO sitcom; nothing else on the network has ever been so unabashedly aimed at the fratboy crowd, and although the level of profanity isn’t quite on par with “Deadwood,” it feels far more gratuitous here. (Granted, the same argument would apply to both shows: “But that’s how they really talk!”) By the end of the first episode, the typical HBO viewer might wonder, “How are they going to find a way to redeem a guy who’s as unlikeable as Kenny Powers?” The average Will Ferrell / Adam McKay fan, however, will most likely be giggling and gleefully asking, “How much more stupid, fucked-up shit this dude is gonna do?” I have a really bad feeling that the latter group will find the overall series way more enjoyable than the former, but I’ll stick around at least through Ferrell’s appearance to see how things are progressing. If Kenny’s still just as unlikeable a guy by the end of Episode 2, however, I don’t know that how interested I’ll be in coming back for more.