When you really think about it, Eastbound and Down is one of the HBO’s most depressing shows — no small feat. The hero’s journey Kenny Powers has been wandering through gets sadder and sadder with each season, as the character falls hard from the top, unlikely to ever obtain the glory he once had. This show challenges its characters to the fullest, and that’s something Jody Hill, David Gordon Green, Danny McBride, and the rest of the creative team behind Eastbound and Down seem to revel in.
Not many television characters can match the sheer narcissism, misogyny, delusion, sadness, and hilarity of Kenny Powers. Somehow, the worse he acts, the more human and oddly lovable Hill & Co. make him. Powers is about as anti-heroic as a television character can get.
Here’s what Jody Hill had to say about what we can expect from season three, the highs and lows of Kenny Powers’ arc, Stevie Janowski’s warped coming-of-age Stevie story, and more:
What would you say the main goal is for this season?
Kenny is one step closer to the majors, and he’s playing in the minor leagues. He’s confident at any point he’s going to be called up to play in the majors. Ike Barinholtz, who plays a young Russian pitcher, kind of gets in the way of that. We’re following that story, but at the same time you’re following a family storyline as well, where Kenny is dealing with being a father. It’s like this fucked-up show meets a family drama!
[Laughs] I know you guys first saw the show as two seasons and knew exactly what you wanted. With a third season, did it change, how you initially saw Kenny’s arc?
We always saw it as a three-season show. We kind of knew where we were heading with the show. Now that we’re at the end, we’re debating whether or not to do more. I think all three of these seasons tell a really good story, and we kind of tell it like a movie, where you can’t really jump into the show wherever you want. Now that it’s coming to the end, if we could continue… I really like telling stories with Kenny Powers. We always wanted this to be a character piece, but it really feels like you could follow this character with whatever he deals with next in life. You know, we only saw it as three seasons, but who’s to say?
Have you shot the final episode yet?
Say if this was the last season, would there be a sense of closure?
You know, we certainly tell the story we wanted to tell from the beginning. Like I said, it’s a character piece; I don’t want to give anything away, but it ends on… I’ll just say it’s about Kenny as a character in how it wraps up.
I understand. Going back to square one, what was the story you saw in Kenny that you all wanted to tell?
Well, we really wanted to tell something about a man who is basically a fallen hero. Sports, which we actually know nothing about, is the closest thing we have, in terms of how our world likes celebrity and athletes; those are the people everybody is fascinated with. We wanted to take a modern day hero and show what happens when he loses it all, and you start the quest with that. We wanted to follow him as he tries to get back that glory. It kind of follows the traditional structure of a hero’s journey, but it’s also flipping it, where it’s not the journey of becoming a hero; he’s already a hero, and that’s who you’re following.
Wouldn’t you say he’s only a hero in his eyes? Most characters on the show probably see him as a villain.
[Laughs] Yeah, I think that’s the twist. It is possible people see him as the villain, but villains also see themselves as villains.
Do you think the heroism comes from him not being malicious? He never comes off as trying to be bad.
Well, the hero in the story is strictly who you’re following on the quest. Looking at it that way, Kenny Powers is the hero. Our hero just happens to be a narcissist. He has all these issues he can’t get around. In Kenny Powers’ eyes, he’s on the right quest all the time. And it’s his own quest, which is the important one to him.
[Laughs] I’d say all your work follows these type of narcissistic characters who all see themselves as being very manly. What draws you to that type of character?
I don’t know. You know, I definitely see the similarities. I don’t know if I’d say Ronnie in Observe and Report is a narcissist, whereas Kenny Powers is totally an egomaniac. For awhile I think I was into people who… I don’t think people necessarily think of themselves as they really are. Everyone has big dreams and sees themselves as the hero of their own movie. It was kind of a fun experiment to take people who so obviously aren’t how they see themselves, and then show how they really are. I’m getting ready to do another movie soon, and it’s not that kind of thing. There’s an appeal to me of people who see themselves as the king of their own kingdom.
[Laughs] You meet people like that all the time.
[Laughs] Yeah. With Kenny, we also wanted to do a Southern character. There were a lot of things in addition to the hero thing, but we really wanted to take a Southern character and show the South you really don’t see. I feel, sometimes, when you see movies about the South, they’re either the dramas in the woods and all that kind of shit or just hillbillies in comedies, and I think there’s a mix of that with this strip mall culture you don’t see a lot. The idea of putting a former athlete into that world was pretty appealing as well. [Laughs]
[Laughs] There’s always a surprising amount of humanity in Kenny. How much do you draw from real life or things you’ve heard?
We steal from everywhere. Like, we’ll steal from our friends, ourselves, and obviously we’ll reference other movies as well. It all comes from somewhere else, I guess. I think a lot of the humanity Kenny has is due to the fact we take him seriously as a character, even with all his flaws. At the same time, Danny McBride gets that and is able to make Kenny Powers a real person that you can empathize with. I think a combination of that makes him understandable.
It’s basically a really dark drama [Laughs].
[Laughs] It’s kind of like if you took a drama and tried to put a bunch of dick jokes in there.
[Laughs] That’s a good way of putting it. I’d say Kenny is very much the antagonist of the show, with how he creates the main problems. How does that help the writing process, having a hero who creates his own conflict?
That absolutely helps. I think if narcissists aren’t in the midst of a drama, then they’re not comfortable in their own skin. Kenny being a former celebrity, a professional athlete, and having a classic case of a narcissistic personality disorder — when you put those together, he’s going to create his own drama. He’s never comfortable with where he is. The only way he could be comfortable is if everyone in the world was kissing his ass. Even when he had that, he wasn’t comfortable, so he had to create drama. [Laughs] He’s always going to be in the middle of something.
Without spoiling anything, when you started from scratch, did you see him as a character capable of getting back glory?
Well, I don’t want to say too much about that. I will say Kenny gets it in his own way, but I think that’s the idea: he’s always looking for the answer. He just can’t help to create more drama that pushes him further and further away from the answer.
Where do you see Stevie Janowski going?
[Laughs] Stevie… when we first saw Stevie he was a teacher, but essentially he was a child. Like, he was a middle schooler. When Kenny Powers comes in his life, the first two seasons were basically High School for Stevie, where he first smoked weed and started to play. [Laughs] In a way, even though Stevie goes down a dark hole, Kenny kind of helps Stevie, in a fucked-up way. You know, I think Stevie’s journey, if you want to break it down, is him going from boy to man. Stevie is in a fucked-up coming-of-age story.
I watched some of the first season last night, and when you first saw Stevie he was in a great place; he had a good job and seemed happy. The toll Kenny has taken on him is kind of depressing. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Yeah, you know, he always wanted what Kenny had. In high school, Kenny Powers was the fucking man, and Stevie wasn’t. It’s one of those “you don’t know what you got until it’s gone” type of things. I think Stevie never would have felt his life was better than Kenny Powers’. You see some of the repercussions of Stevie going down the rabbit hole. Also, I think it’s pretty funny. [Laughs]
[Laughs] You can just feel you guys torturing these characters, in a loving type of way.
[Laughs] Yeah, you know, it’s that thing where, when you put your character in pain, all the good stuff feels more good.
[Laughs] They rarely seem to feel good on the show, though.
[Laughs] Well, I think they do. I think there are moments where they feel good, and we treat those moments as special. They actually mean more because of all the dark times for those guys, you know? When he says goodbye to Mexico, I mean… essentially, Mexico was a shit show, but he did make it through the minors and get to say goodbye to all his fucked-up friends down there. [Laughs] There is humanity at the end of the day, I think.
[Laughs] It’s a pretty small triumph.
Of course, but, for Kenny Powers, it’s the most important thing he could have done: return from Mexico a hero and achieving his quest, which is what he did.
That’s a good point. When the show was pitched to HBO, did you say, “It’s a show about a narcissist doing bad things, and only bad things happen”?
[Laughs] I don’t even remember how we pitched it. I don’t think we went that deep, I think we just called him a former athlete who comes home to get a job teaching P.E. at middle school… and he’s a fucking asshole. [Laughs] That’s probably how we pitched it.
Does how you work on Eastbound differ from working on features? Like, what you do on the show and what you did with Observe and Report isn’t exactly commercial. When you think of future projects, is the question of “Can this work for a big audience?” something you think about?
You know, I can’t say I ever sit there and think about the commercial side of things. Like, I won’t think, “Oh, I’ll do this because this is what people want to see!” Although, I want to be a craftsman, where I can make things people hopefully are watching. I don’t think, “I’ll do this because it’ll reach a bigger audience.” Like, Observe and Report is one of those movies; when it came out, it certainly wasn’t a commercial success. When it’s all said and done, I think it broke even, which is good. [Laughs] I do think that movie has had a pretty good shelf life.
I think the one thing that we’ve found with TV is that everything doesn’t rely on a big box-office. Like, we have time finding the character and letting him grow. Can you imagine if Mad Men was a fucking movie? It’d be like, “Well, that was slow. Nothing happened!” [Laughs] When you watch something like that over the first season, you start to understand these characters. Like, you find interesting things about the smaller choices they make, and those take on an importance. You look forward to knowing them, and you feel like you do. I feel that’s the one thing I’ve enjoyed about TV: people have the time to be shocked over Kenny Powers, and then you have time to let go of it and love him later on.
When you were working on Observe and Report, say after test screenings, wouldn’t you have to think of how an audience was going to respond?
Yeah, it was weird. You know, that movie can only be one thing. I did a cut of that movie, and we tested it and scored on the “just above average” line. They were like, “Oh, we can do better! Here’s a few notes.” I did their notes and took out a couple of things, just to try it out. The scores dropped, so they gave more notes. I tried them out, and then the scores plummeted. It was almost like, the more you tried to make that movie accessible, the more crappy it became.
In the end, I was like, fuck this and I did exactly what I wanted it to be. It was basically like the first cut, except a little better because I had more time to work on it. The scores came back up to almost the exact fucking number we got from the first screening, and that’s the cut that got out there. [Laughs] I guess I got my way, my director’s cut! It wasn’t easy and I had to fight on it, but Warner Bros. was supportive on that movie. They really loved it. I think that’s the only studio in town that would support a movie like that. I got lucky on getting that cut out there, with how weird the movie is.
Did that experience inform where you wanted to go next with a feature?
You know, that movie wasn’t a bad experience, making it. I think next time I just want to make something different. I don’t think I’m going to do a comedy next. I like some of the action and drama of it, and it informed where I wanted to go, on an artistic level. Like, not a budgetary or studio level.
Do you ever see yourself doing a movie about nice people? [Laughs]
Maybe one day [Laughs]. You know, who’s to say? I don’t really know what I’m doing. If I find something interesting, then I’ll just kind of work on it. Maybe if I have a kid or something one day, maybe I’ll do something for him. I’ll just write something really shitty one day. [Laughs]
[Laughs] I hope not. The last time we spoke you said you wanted to do The Godfather set in the South. Is that an idea you’re still working on?
You know what? I’m going to be working on that, but it’s not going to come off at all like it sounds. I did a bunch of research into that Southern crime group. Once I got into it I couldn’t figure out how to crack it, because the guys were such fucking assholes. [Laughs] It wasn’t like The Godfather, where there’s this cool structure or a hierarchy of this family, and all that kind of shit. These guys were just assholes and rednecks, so I couldn’t crack it. I came up with a different kind of a movie that’s set in a similar world as that, and another idea sprang off that. I can’t tell you what the new movie is because I just closed the deal, but it’s kind of in that world.
That’s good to hear. A few months ago I spoke with David Gordon Green, who said all characters are likable when you get to know them. Do you approach Kenny and your other characters with the same approach?
Yeah, I feel like David feels. I feel Kenny is human, and I think that’s why people are able to watch Kenny. With all his bullshit, he ultimately is just a really flawed human. We have fun with him and make fun of him, but… it’s like, have you ever taken a trip with someone you don’t know or where you think, “Oh, I don’t know about this guy”? They might be an asshole at the end of the day, but after spending three days in the car with this guy, you weirdly understand why he’s an asshole. You think, “Well, he’s an asshole, but I still kind of like the guy,” and that’s how I think about these “asshole” characters.
Eastbound and Down airs Sunday nights at 10 p.m. on HBO.