Greetings to the New Show: “Eastbound and Down”

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.

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TCA Tour, Jan. 2009: “Eastbound and Down”

Danny McBride had a hell of a 2008, what with scene-stealing roles in “Pineapple Express,” “Tropic Thunder,” and…well, okay, maybe “Drillbit Taylor” wasn’t everything it could’ve been. But, still, the guy’s definitely on a roll, and although 2009 was already shaping up to be a good year for McBride, thanks to his co-starring role in Will Ferrell’s take on Sid & Marty Krofft’s “Land of the Lost,” he can now also claim ownership of a lead role in an HBO series.

HBO’s Sue Naegle was able to sum up the premise of “Eastbound and Down” in a single well-constructed sentence: the hilariously tragic story of Kenny Powers, a former major league pitcher whose bad-boy ways have him down and out and teaching phys ed. at his old middle school in North Carolina. As a man who’s spent his entire life within a 30-minute drive of the Tarheel State (though this is probably the first time I’ve ever referred to it as the Tarheel State), I admit to a certain affinity for the premise, particularly after hearing McBride talk about his reasons for doing the series.

“These guys both grew up in North Carolina,” McBride said, referring to his collaborators Jody Hill and
Ben Best, “and I grew up in Virginia, and we all met at film school down in North Carolina School of the Arts. We weren’t really happy with the way the South was portrayed in a lot of film and television. It seemed like it kind of stopped at the ‘Hee-Haw’ kind of deal, which is overalls and Billy Bob, so we kind of wanted to find new things to make fun of in the South.”

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