There was some buzz about Danny McBride based on his work in The Foot Fist Way, a film that Will Ferrell saw early on and became an advocate for. However, the thing that really announced McBride's mainstream arrival was HBO's Eastbound & Down, chronicling the post-baseball career of the fictional Kenny Powers. Before the KP Halloween costumes and K-Swiss ads was a show that possessed a darkly funny protagonist, one who was abrasive yet oddly vulnerable.
McBride's Powers burst onto the baseball scene with a World Series performance as a rookie relief pitcher like no other, with a hugely talented arm and ego to match. As the skills began to decline, Powers bounced from team to team, getting embroiled in controversies along the way, before eventually landing back in his hometown of Shelby, North Carolina. Living with his brother Dustin (John Hawkes, Winter's Bone) and his family, Kenny tries to get his life and career back on track. He becomes a substitute teacher at a middle school, and he runs into his high school girlfriend April (Katy Mixon, All About Steve). April is engaged, about to marry the school's principal (Andrew Daly, Semi-Pro), but Kenny feels that his fame and athletic prowess make reestablishing a relationship a formality. At the school is Stevie Janowski (Steve Little, The Ugly Truth), the band teacher and former classmate of Kenny's who is still in awe after lo these many years and becomes Kenny's assistant in his quest for a comeback.
The shows are directed by David Gordon Green, director of George Washington, but also a longtime friend and former college classmate of McBride's. Not one particularly accustomed to directing comedies, the pair (along with writers and friends Ben Best and Jody Hill) is certainly familiar with each other's talents and the show is ripe with laughs. Moreover, the show packs them in from the jump. Many moments where Kenny speaks freely without correction or retribution make for great lines. One where he talks to Best (who plays a local friend who owns a bar and deals/uses drugs) before making an appearance at a local car dealership remains one I laugh at until I cry, and I've seen that scene more than a dozen times.
And who owns the dealership? That would be Ashley Schaeffer, played by Ferrell in a guest-starring role. Ferrell is even funny here too, playing a southern businessman with 1983 Ric Flair hair with a hint of a bisexuality. Ferrell plays off of McBride well, but the cast surrounding McBride is one that works to a perfect tone, with everyone feeling comfortable to improvise should the moment suit them, and they all look like people who you would run into in North Carolina, possessing just the right amount of white trash to them.
Yet underneath the jocularity, there is a striking subtlety in Powers' transition to the real world. As the show's six-episode first season transpires, he goes from a man convinced that a phone call from the majors is bound to happen at any time. His depression about not getting that call immediately is funny, but when he realizes that perhaps he should get accustomed to life in the cackalacky for awhile it proves to be convincing and effective. As he starts to set roots he is redeemed if only briefly, and as he departs the first season, it's almost as if Best, Hill and McBride did it on their own terms, to remind you that you may think you know or care about Kenny Powers, but maybe you shouldn't care about him at all.
All in all, Eastbound & Down made for one of the more memorable cable comedies in recent memory, not only for the dark and slightly depraved laughs, but in its star, McBride helped create a nuanced character arc for himself. Even with the appearances of Ferrell and Craig Robinson (The Office), I would bet the show would have still worked without the familiar faces and been just as funny. The show illustrated to us that McBride was worth the introduction and thankfully, he is not leaving anytime soon.
The Blu-ray Discs:
All of the episodes are presented in 1.78:1 widescreen and in high-definition using the AVC codec. Recalling how they looked when they were first broadcast, the show's first appearance on Blu-ray is not going to be one where jaws drop. Blacks tend to be a little inconsistent and the image lacks a little detail. With that said, skin tones are replicated well (a scene in the first episode where Kenny and Dustin are talking in a pool shows us that McBride needs to get out in the sun more) and the color palette does not appear to be oversaturated. Film grain is present during viewing, and this is a satisfactory (if not workmanlike) replication of the shows on Blu.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless soundtracks that accompany the show are solid. Dialogue is consistent in the center channel and requires little user compensation. What struck me about watching the show on video (I had previously watched them on broadcast and in reruns) was the level of activity in the rear channels when it came to directional effects and channel panning, both of which were present and effective in listening. The rock and rap songs sprinkled through the series sound clear over the soundstage, and the overall listening experience for the show is pleasant.
The extras from the (standard definition discs are ported over to two Blu-ray discs. McBride, Green, Best and Hill provide episode commentaries on the first, fourth and sixth installments, and the group recount the original story ideas and possess solid recollection of specific scenes or on the production as a whole. When you listen to them in one pass the commentaries tend to run out of steam (and are workmanlike in tone), though there are some jokes tossed in here and there. Overall, I did not gather too much from listening to them.
The remaining extras are all on Disc Two, starting with "Making Eastbound & Down" (12:13), what basically amounts to an HBO making-of look at the show with cast and crew opinion on working on set. There are some outtakes in there, but overall this is not all that revealing. "Kenny Powers' Greatest Hits" (2:39) is an audition tape of Powers displaying his wares to Major League Scouts that is funny to watch. Next up are two commercials for Ashley Schaeffer Motors (2:50), replete with Ferrell and others in character. Fifteen deleted scenes (9:13) are more discarded ad libs that anything else, including a funny sequence with McBride and a middle school boy. The outtake reel (13:03) isn't bad, and Stevie's Dark Secret (7:37) features a scene where the character discusses...his darkest moment.
Eastbound & Down continues to make me show my teeth at all of the same moments despite knowing when they are all going to come. The more impressive part is how Powers manages to transition from denial to acceptance and dealing with his flaws, and how McBride communicates them. As far as the discs go, they are not jaw-dropping technically, and they are slightly better than average from an extras point of view. If you are looking to double-dip, I might suggest holding off, but if you have not watched the show yet, you had better start here, or else you're going to be fucking out.