Eastbound & Down Is as Bleak as Breaking Bad, and a Lot Funnier

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Sept. 26 2013 2:21 PM

Breaking Ball

Forget Walter White. Eastbound & Down is the most original, disturbing, wrenching show on television. (And it’s hilarious, too.)

Danny McBride, Eastbound & Down
Danny McBride in the Season 4 premiere of Eastbound & Down

Photo courtesy Fred Norris/HBO

In the middle of the third season of HBO’s Eastbound & Down a main character dies, suddenly, of a cocaine overdose. This event is shown graphically and at discomforting length, while the Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian” pulses in the background. Upon realizing that his best friend has died, former big league pitcher Kenny Powers—the only other person present—swings into action, cleaning up the scene by greedily snorting the remaining cocaine and then positioning his friend’s body to make it look like he died peacefully while engrossed in a book (specifically Powers’ latest autobiography, I’m Fucking Back: A Rags to Riches to Rags to Riches Story). Powers then flees the scene by stealing the deceased’s truck. The sequence feels ripped from Requiem for a Dream or the last third of Boogie Nights, with the crucial difference being that it is completely hilarious. And that is the best way I know to begin talking about Eastbound & Down.

Eastbound & Down begins its fourth and final season this Sunday at 10 p.m. Given its low ratings and general lack of critical or cultural buzz, the fact that it’s made it this far feels like divine intervention, though the suggestion that God is a fan of this show would complicate most conventional theologies. Since premiering in 2009 Eastbound & Down has staked its claim as the most perverse, off-kilter, original, disturbing, wrenching, and flat-out funniest comedy on television. It’s also perhaps the most transgressive and avant-garde American television show since Twin Peaks, a subversive, wildly alienating work that treats the conventions of its medium and the decency of its audience as vanishing, inconvenient afterthoughts. Everyone should watch it.

Eastbound follows the exploits of Powers (played by Danny McBride), a lazy, bigoted, booze-and-drug-addled washout whose lone gift for throwing a baseball “faster than fuck” has left him with a narcissism so pronounced that it borders on mental illness. Since peaking at 19 his life has been an ongoing, perpetually shocking series of encounters with his own fallibility. Powers wants back into baseball, and will do anything to get there apart from actually working. His sidekick, Stevie Janowski (Steve Little, in an astonishingly warped performance), is a socially-stunted weirdo whose lack of anything resembling personal direction is offset by a complete and grotesque devotion to Powers. Other characters drift in and out of the series, most notably Powers’ oft-skeptical love interest April Buchanan (Katy Mixon), and his brother Dustin (John Hawkes) and sister-in-law Cassie (Jennifer Irwin), but Powers and Janowski are the show’s soul, the lynchpins of its raucous, babbling narrative.

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Eastbound & Down’s first three seasons were set in different locales—the first in Powers’ hometown of Shelby, North Carolina, the second in Mexico, the third in Myrtle Beach—each of which boasted new sets of supporting characters and new hurdles to be overcome, or crawled under, or set ablaze and abandoned. The fourth season (minor spoilers ahead) jumps several years into the future, with Powers back in Shelby, married to April and trying to reimagine himself as a working-stiff family man. The wheels come off this ill-fated experiment after an encounter with a former-teammate-turned-sports-talk-celebrity: There is drag-racing, fisticuffs, boozing, rampant pharmaceutical abuse, an extended slo-mo sequence set to ASAP Rocky’s “1Train” (Eastbound consistently boasts one of the best soundtracks on television). And that’s just in the first hour.

For all its gleeful absurdity Eastbound & Down is really a show about failure, about people whose lives have failed to turn out how they want and people who’ve failed to even consider what life they wanted in the first place. It’s about people trying to do the right thing and failing, or about people trying to do the wrong thing and failing at that: The show’s sweetest, most redemptive moments come about when characters fail at failing. This probably sounds depressing, and like all great comedy Eastbound & Down holds an abundance of sadness. But the show is also deeply humane, and seems to operate on the premise that failure might be the essential human condition. In doing so it lets all of us off the hook just a bit. If there’s a philosophical mood that governs the chaos of Eastbound & Down, it might be described as pessimistic generosity.

And like everything else great on this show, that generosity starts from McBride, who embodies his character as fully, carefully, and perfectly as any actor on television. Never has a man so stupid been rendered with such intelligence and subtlety; it’s an effortless performance of a man trying too hard, in all the wrong directions. McBride is on-screen for nearly every scene of Eastbound & Down, and even functions as its de facto narrator: In one of the show’s best recurring devices, Powers is constantly either listening to or recording his own memoir, which offers a window into his minimal but fragile psyche as well as some of the funniest writing on the show. (“My story is the story of a raging Christ-figure who tore himself off the cross and looked at the Romans with blood in his eyes and said, ‘My turn now, cocksuckers.’ ”)

Eastbound’s exquisite characters are enduring gifts to television on their own, but the show’s finest achievement is as a razor-sharp social satire that doubles as a sly and timely send-up of its medium. If we live in a golden age of great television shows, the vast majority of these shows have featured angst-ridden white male protagonists. This shift from heroes to anti-heroes has been frequently and rightly characterized as a broader interrogation of masculinity itself, one occasioned by crises of its creators, crises of culture, or both. But while current prestige-magnets like Mad Men and Breaking Bad might offer revisionist takes on white maleness, they also offer their audiences renewed fantasies of the same. Young men buy suits cut to look like Don Draper’s; aggrieved Internet communities close ranks in protection of Walter White’s right to be the One Who Knocks.

Eastbound & Down isn’t so much a show about white masculinity in transition or decline as it is a biting send-up of male fantasy itself. Powers fancies himself an alpha dog, gunslinging, rock ’n’ roll outlaw, a fiction he believes to be reality, and to which he believes himself to be entitled. Kenny Powers’ problem, in a sense, is that he’s watched too much TV. If Mad Men is a drama about the encroaching demise of a certain white male dominance, Eastbound & Down is a satire of its vacancy, and its bankruptcy. The latter is a whole lot funnier, and often more daring.

The most piercing way that Eastbound & Down accomplishes this is in its depiction of sport: Eastbound is a show about baseball that often feels like it’s made by people who really hate baseball. The national pastime is treated with none of the gauzy reverence of Updike, Malamud, or Field of Dreams; it’s gross and debauched, a morass of juiced-up players, abusive fans, godforsaken locales, bored and boring spectacle. Many of the actors on-screen (including McBride) boast hilariously unathletic physiques, and seem to have last donned a glove back in the days when home plate came with a tee. It’s the ugliest depiction of the game in recent memory, a hilarious and welcome desecration of one of the old white America’s favorite civic religions.

To borrow from its main character, Eastbound & Down has a mouth like a sailor, an arm like a damn rocket, and a mind like a fucking scientist. It’s also got the soul of a poet, and we’ll soon be much poorer without it. So tune in this Sunday for the beginning of the last last stand of Kenny Powers, or better yet, set your DVR so you can watch it after the last episode Breaking Bad, which is my plan. At that point we’ll have all earned the laughs. 

Jack Hamilton is Slate’s pop critic. He is assistant professor of American studies and media studies at the University of Virginia. Follow him on Twitter.

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