Eastbound and Down

In just a few more days, the new TV season will be upon us. That means this weekend is the last chance for a binge-watch to catch up on a show you’ve been meaning to see but haven’t gotten around to yet.

If you’re looking for one last mini-marathon, you could definitely do a lot worse than HBO’s Danny McBride vehicle Eastbound and Down. With only seven half-hour episodes in each season, it’ll be a cinch to run through the previous seasons before the fourth premieres on Sunday, September 29.

For the duration of its existence, Eastbound has been the towheaded stepchild of HBO’s comedy lineup, itself a mere offshoot of the cable network’s programming. Curb Your Enthusiasm exploited the absence of new Seinfeld episodes to neurotic glory, while Veep enjoys star power in Julia Louis-Dreyfus and a BBC pedigree — it sure looks and sounds like a great show. But both series have a bitter-tasting tinge of rich people whipping themselves into a froth over trivialities.

Eastbound is just as dry and satirical in its humor as its spotlight-hogging siblings, but distinguishes itself by being, well, relevant. McBride’s mulletted Kenny Powers character is a thing of wonder: an arrogant, self-deceiving baseball has-been trying to get back into the Major Leagues after a very public flame-out who’s keenly aware of his impending downward mobility and his having attained and lost the American Dream. (In this sense, it’s not so different from HBO’s transcendent, sadly cancelled half-hour drama Enlightened.)

But Eastbound‘s relevance also comes from its engagement with — and ultimate deviation from — the arc of (mostly male) comedy movies today, nearly all of which are premised on the necessity for redemption. It’s a formula that predated but reached its apotheoses in Adam McKay’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up. Those film’s successes have led to an overcrowded field of copycat comedies in which the protagonist acts like a (usually funny) dick for the first half of the film, then is neutered to bland, sitcom-dad likability for the interminable second half. (I’m looking your way, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.)

But redemption is a delusion for Kenny Powers. Each season, he starts over in a new locale, surrounds himself with (mostly) strangers, and tries a different tack for getting noticed by MLB scouts while keeping himself (barely) financially afloat. But age has already caught up to him, reputation precedes him (in a bad way), and it’s the money and power from the big leagues that made him such an asshole in the first place anyway. In his kinder, more self-aware moments, we want to root for Kenny, but it’s impossible to forget that having him get what he wants isn’t just unlikely, it’ll be toxic to his character. Absolution is a poison Kenny’s desperate to take.

Like Enlightened, McBride is also a master at skewering the self-helpy language of redemption. Much of Eastbound‘s jokes come from showing how easily wisdom-in-proverbs naturally lend themselves to narcissistic chest-thumping, as when Kenny says, “Undaunted, I knew the game was mine to win. Just like in life, all of my successes depend on me. I’m the man who has the ball; I’m the man who can throw it faster than fuck. So, that is why I’m better than everyone in the world. Kiss my ass and suck my dick, everyone.”

Neither is Kenny at all adept at fixing his personal life. He’s screwed over his family and his soul mate too many times to count; in the moments that count, he rarely comes through, and his gestures of being John Cusack make him look more like John Mayer.

Eastbound fans’ biggest fear is that the stuntcasting of Lindsay Lohan in the fourth season might literalize the show’s theme of redemption. It’s a valid worry; Lohan hasn’t really acquitted herself with her TV (or recent film) work so far. But it’s difficult to see McBride — who cares enough about perfecting the show to limit its run to just four seasons despite HBO’s willingness to throw piles of money at him forever — and his team of very tonally honed writers undo the very thing they’ve worked so hard on for the past three years.

If Kenny Powers can’t save himself, he very well might save Lindsay Lohan.


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