Love or hate Will Ferrell--and given the inconsistency of his cinematic output, it's perfectly acceptable to do both--his impact on modern comedy is undeniable. Ferrell ushered in a new golden age for the deluded but well-meaning schlump who can't see how misplaced his own self-belief is, though Ferrell's greatest contribution to the comedic type is that the egomaniac no longer needs to be well meaning. Gone is any childlike innocence, instead replaced with adolescent denial. While this may, to a degree, remove the heart from a character, the benefit is how much farther the humor can go into dark and absurd territory.
And no one gets darker than Jody Hill and Danny McBride. It's no surprise that the pair caught the attention of Ferrell with their independently made The Foot Fist Way, an uneven comedy about a karate instructor that rules his Southern suburban dojo like his own little fiefdom. From there, the two have refined their cocksure style. McBride has appeared in films like Pineapple Express and Tropic Thunder, and Hill wrote and directed the bizarre and uncomfortably hilarious Seth Rogen-feature Observe & Report. In the midst of all of this, they also created a successful HBO series, Eastbound & Down, the first season of which is now making its way to DVD.
Eastbound & Down is a vehicle built exclusively for McBride, and it's the right kind of show to pull him out of the supporting roles and put him back in the center of the spotlight. He plays Kenny Powers, a washed-up baseball pitcher whose take-no-prisoners anti-PC persona, along with a lightning fast arm, made him the flashpoint of fame in the 1990s. Success and the various substances Kenny was abusing went to his head, and eventually he lost it all. At the start of the series, he finds himself back home in North Carolina, living with his older brother (Deadwood's John Hawkes) and his family and getting a job as a P.E. teacher at the junior high. It's a step down for a man of Kenny's inflated self-confidence, and he struts the halls of the middle school like he's still a V.I.P. bypassing the line at a nightclub. The brilliance of a character like this, what makes him so entertaining to watch, is that he expects the world to adjust to him, he's not going to adjust to it.
Amongst the people caught up in Kenny's personal enthusiasm are socially awkward band teacher Stevie (Steve Little), who worships Kenny, and Cutler, the milquetoast principal (Andrew Daly) who just wants to do right by everybody. This, naturally, gives Kenny plenty of room to undermine his authority, and the fact that Cutler is engaged to Kenny's high school sweetheart, now a drama teacher, gives the pompous ballplayer even more reason to do so. The lady in question, April Buchanon--nicknamed "Big Cannons" due to her obvious endowments--is played by Katy Mixon, who I liked a whole hell of a lot as the nasty cheerleader in Jamie Babbit's 2005 thriller The Quiet. How Mixon went from playing a high school student to a thirtysomething middle school teacher in under four years is beyond me, but she manages to make both ages believable. As April, she presents herself as together enough that we can see why men might fight over her (beyond her considerable beauty, of course), but also with enough hints of a darker edge to make it believable that she might also be attracted to Kenny's bad boy personality. It's a crucial trait, we can't be allowed to recoil every time April gives in to temptation. Let's be honest, their coupling gives a whole new definition to "out of her league." If April is the majors, Kenny is tee-ball.
The six episodes that make up Eastbound & Down - The Complete First Season track Kenny's initial denial of the rock bottom where he finds himself, with an important character shift midway where a personal humiliation forces him to realize he needs to get it together, leading him to forsake baseball only to get pulled right back in. Tellingly, the series producers--which number among them Hill, McBride, and series co-creator Ben Best (who also plays Kenny's drug buddy Clegg), as well as Ferrell and Anchorman-director Adam McKay--have dubbed each installment a "chapter" rather than an "episode," and the structure of this initial series is closer to a novel the way it tracks a continuous narrative, with some episodes starting at the exact moment that the previous one ended. In addition to the production muscle, Eastbound & Down also employs some heavyweight talent in the directing chair. Hill helmed both the pilot and the finale, McKay directed the penultimate chapter, and the other three were overseen by David Gordon Green, the one-time indie darling who made George Washington and Snow Angles. With this show, as well as Pineapple Express, Green has emerged as having a true gift for comedy. He handles the pivotal episode in Eastbound & Down, chapter four, where a barbeque at Cutler and April's place brings emotions to a head, and where Kenny receives the shame that will cause him to transform himself.
Though Danny McBride has been very good in most of the movies he's been in since Foot Fist Way, there was always the danger that maybe, as an actor, he was too much of that Will Ferrell character himself. He was like Kenny in Eastbound when he gets his arm back, there was a good chance that he was going to be hot, but he still needed to prove that it was something he could sustain. Kenny Powers has taken away all such doubt. McBride is more assured than ever, more comfortable in playing this character, even if Kenny is just a more polished version of the roles the comedian had tackled before. Kenny is rude, abrasive, and a total loudmouth. In a very funny scene in an early episode, he flips out on one of his nephews and goes on an extended shout, explaining that even when he has calmed, he can't express himself any other way. To a degree, as much as a character like Kenny never really learns anything, part of the arc of The Complete First Season does connect his getting his baseball skills back to his being able to better communicate, to express his feelings for April and to admit his own shortcomings even as he is forced to face them. Episode 5 has a raucous and kind of shocking showdown with his old baseball rival (The Office's Craig Robinson), as well as the second appearance by Will Ferrell as a sleazy BMW salesman. Facing Robinson forces Kenny to tackle what ails him head on.
Not that we're watching Eastbound & Down to see Kenny become a better man. Though McBride is putting back some of the heart his pseudo-mentor took out, the true appeal of these kinds of characters is never seeing them get out from behind the eight ball, to watch in cruel delight as they get past their own hubris only to get smacked down again. We also like to see them be bad, and there are enough drinks, drugs, and insults tossed around Eastbound & Down to make sure that there will be no shortage of offensive hijinks. It's not a series for the politically squeamish, nor will those who have been raised to expect hugs at the end of their sitcoms find much comfort in where each of these episodes goes. Like many a modern television comedy, Eastbound & Down is more than aware of the clichés and openly plays with them in order to subvert them. Even the role of the nerdy best friend is given new life by Steve Little. His Stevie is a strange Frankenstein's monster of homoerotic tension, playground peevishness, and underdog copycatting. He has a lot of the funniest moments, his mentally challenged outbursts on behalf of Kenny's reputation getting more hilarious the more foul mouthed and ridiculous his sycophantism grows.
By the final episode, Eastbound & Down has reached some inevitable highs, and as with Kenny's pharmaceutical escapades, the crash is equally inevitable. It's when, and not if. When that crash does come, it's well played and satisfying, coming off as natural rather than forced. Had HBO not already renewed the series for a second go, it would have been a satisfactory finish, but now that there will be another season, I'm eager to see what happens next. Will Kenny get to go back to the beginning and do this all over again, a wish he proclaims midway through the finale, or will there be even newer humiliations for him to suffer? Only time will tell, but sign me up for when that time comes.
The 16:9 anamorphic transfer on Eastbound & Down - The Complete First Season keeps HBO's sterling digital reputation intact. The colors are good and the resolution is sharp, with no problems with compression.
The programs are mixed in 5.1 surround and they sound fantastic. Good volume on the dialogue, excellent balance with the music (the soundtrack for the show is an excellent array of white trash rock), and though there are not a lot of multi-speaker effects, the atmosphere is full and warm.
Subtitles are available in French, Spanish, and English Closed Captioning. There is also a Spanish audio track in 2.0.
Eastbound & Down - The Complete First Season is a two-disc set released in a standard-sized DVD case with a hinged interior tray. The plastic case comes with an outer slipcover that for once isn't useless, but rather has different images and information printed on it than is printed on the inside cover.
Disc 1 only has one extra, an audio commentary on episode 1 with Ben Best, Jody Hill, Danny McBride, and David Gordon Green. The four men have a comfortable rapport, and the track ends up being both light and informative. The discuss both specific scenes and the overall development of the material, as well as their philosophies on comedy. The quartet also recorded commentaries on DVD 2 for episodes 4 and 6.
The second disc leads with the HBO promotional short, "Making Eastbound & Down" (12 minutes). It is a fairly good press feature, with cast and crew interviews and on-set footage, including peeks at takes that differ from the final version.
Two of the bonus supplements on DVD 2 are extra films that are part of the episodes or connected to the fictional world of Eastbound & Down. They are:
* "Kenny Powers: Greatest Hits": The comeback film Stevie makes for Kenny.
* "Schaeffer Motor Commercials: Two TV spots promoting the car dealership owned by Will Ferrell's character, and featuring Ferrell.
There are just over 9 minutes of deleted scenes, which are largely trims and alternate takes from other scenes. They are fairly funny, and short enough not to wear out their welcome, including some fun interaction between McBride and younger actors. There's also some good stuff with the monkey mascot Kenny gets fired from the auto dealership and Party Down-star Adam Scott's sports agent. In addition to this, there are 13 minutes of outtakes, a gag reel of flubs and bloopers. Quite a few of these feature marathon ad-libs from Ferrell, and it's almost like he's challenging his co-stars to get through them without laughing.
"Stevie's Dark Secret" (7 mins., 30 seconds) is another deleted scene, an extended bit with Kenny, Stevie, and Clegg where Stevie shares a story that he never told anyone before, detailing the worst thing he's ever done. It's an unpolished scene, complete with stops and redos.
Eastbound & Down - The Complete First Season is a raunchy comedy that skewers fame, American entitlement, and everyday life with its vicious wit and take-no-prisoners attitude. Danny McBride is great as the main character, the baseball has-been Kenny Powers, and with his Foot Fist Way collaborators Jody Hill and Bent Best, along with some powerhouse directors and an excellent ensemble cast, he's added another jewel to the HBO comedy crown. Kind of like Curb Your Enthusiasm in the American South, with a guy who may not have the same righteous (and therefore, cathartic) irritation that Larry David does, but is irritating in ways all his own. Forget catharsis or identifying, it's okay to laugh at and not with Kenny Powers. Damn funny and Highly Recommended.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.