We usually leave the sports stuff for Deadspin, but HBO's new series Eastbound & Down has very little to do with sports, and even less to do with compassionate human interaction. We're cool with that.
For the sake of full disclosure, we love The Foot Fist Way, the previous Danny McBride-Ben Best-Jody Hill creation presented by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, so we're predisposed to enjoying the McBride-Best-Hill brand of semi-sociopathic comedy. But if Fred Simmons in a mullet is what you are hoping for with Eastbound & Down, you'll be half-surprised.
We meet protagonist Kenny Powers (McBride) through an extended montage detailing his brief rise and long fall from grace — from pudgy baseball pitching star with a greasy, curly mullet to a reluctant substitute teacher with a greasy, curly mullet. While the snippets are offensively humorous (especially the flurry of magazine covers — High Times, American Woodworker (!)), it was a good idea to get all the hardcore baseball stuff out of the way early, because this show is not about sports. It's a new take on the hubris-leaking "hero returns to his smalltown" story (e.g. October Road), though we still haven't seen the town after the first half-hour.
In "Chapter 1" (the episode's actual title), we are shown the three spheres of any teacher's life — school, home and the local bar. Kenny behaves like an a-hole on his first day at Jefferson Davis High School, especially when hitting on his old flame April (Katy Mixon), who (of course) is engaged to the likable, smoothie-blender-in-his-office, aspiring triathlete Principal Terrence Cutler (Andrew Daly). At home (his brother's house), Kenny orders hookers ("And can I wear the Scream mask, the mask from Scream, when I do you from behind?") and yells at his nephew for playing with his jet ski. It's at the bar where we see Kenny finally let his hair down (further) while doing blow with high school buddy Clegg (Ben Best, Chuck "The Truck" Wallace from Foot Fist Way). There's another montage of Kenny and Clegg sniffing thick lines and jawing about plot elements and random topics like Widespread Panic.
But this is not the "Sweet Eli Whitney's nose!" school of comedy. The McKay-Ferrell improvisational ethic of working over a potential punchline until it yields something sublime and/or referential to specific animals ("Chip, I'm gonna come at you like a spider monkey!") did not rear its strangely beautiful head in the first episode, though it's doubtful that Will Ferrell won't riff on something when he appears in the second episode as a used car dealer.
Instead of creating a world where any character can make any reference at any time, the characters have been shaded towards the middle. HBO's Eastbound & Down Web site sets Principal Cutler up as a "tool" unworthy of April, but on-screen he is affable and neither mean nor insecure and seems totally worthy of April's affections. Kenny's brother Dustin (John Hawkes) is neither too henpecked or overly excited for his crass brother to be living in his crib. The same goes for Dustin's wife Cassie (Jennifer Irwin) who bristles - but does not break - when Kenny makes fun of her toddler. Keep in mind that there are young children at the table:
CASSIE: Her name is Rose, named after Miss Kate Winslet in the movie Titanic.
KENNY: Y'all named your daughter after fucking Titanic?
DUSTIN: It's Cassie's favorite movie.
KENNY: Oh wow. You better be shitting me. What's his name? Fucking Shrek?
No matter who is in his presence - his brother's kids, reporters, the school principal, his gym class - Kenny's still dropping f- and s-bombs. We tend to find stuff like this funny, but a lot of people will think that the swearing is the joke and dismiss some of the humor in E&D. Unfortunately, the writers left that door open from the first line of the show ("When my ass was 19 years old..."), but it's a simplistic criticism that is only apt when applied to bad stand-up comics. Otherwise, the use of inappropriate language by a character in an ensemble setting is an expression of his inability to follow the rules of society. Or it's because swearing is funny. Either way, we laughed.
David Gordon Green (All the Real Girls, Pineapple Express) directed this episode with little flair but with an eye for letting the jokes be as subtle as possible. Very few directors working in comedy today would let an opportunity for a close-up shot of bare breasts pass them by, but Green leaves them in a medium-long frame. The script, written by Best, Hill and McBride, veers from straight-up mean to meta ("Instantly I regret saying that. That was a horrible thing to say.") and gives us a redemptive (albeit narcissistic) moment a little too soon in the series, but then, they don't have much time to get everything established before their first season run ends.
This was the first episode of a six episode season, and with only a heaping handful of episodes to endear itself to the "It's not TV, it's HBO" crowd there may not be enough time for it to have the buzz and event status of Curb Your Enthusiasm or even Showtime's United States of Tara. But we doubt anyone really cares about that — or needs it. For one, HBO owns part of FunnyorDie.com and is firmly staked in the McKay-Ferrell business. More importantly, however, the Gary Sanchez brand (the production company co-founded by McKay and Ferrell and run by Chris Henchy, also a partner in FunnyorDie) is still young and trying to establish itself as a distinct entity from Judd Apatow's empire, despite Apatow's involvement in many McKay-Ferrell projects. If Apatow's bread-and-butter is the slacking man-child schlub with the heart of gold, then it's becoming clear that Gary Sanchez is hoping their distinctly unsympathetic slacking man-child schlub pays the same dividends.
[Photo: HBO/ Fred Norris]