By Simon Abrams
Press Play Contributor
When Kenny Powers (Danny McBride) sets his mind to doing something, he not only usually doesn’t do it, he makes you second-guess him the few times that he does manage to get anything done right. Kenny, the main protagonist in HBO’s proudly juvenile sitcom Eastbound & Down, is an obnoxious screw-up, a washed-up athlete who is so deeply confused and self-absorbed that he never really understands why he sucks so damn much. We don’t just expect Kenny to fail because it’s in the sitcom’s nature to periodically force its protagonists back to square one in order to maintain dramatic equilibrium. Since Kenny’s normal emotional state is hitting rock bottom, it’s also a given that he’s going to fail even when he infrequently succeeds. What really makes Kenny an unfailing schmuck is his self-centeredness — the way that he makes everything about him.
That is why Eastbound & Down’s second season, which arrived on DVD and Blu Ray this week, is so surprising. As we catch up with the washed-up ball-player we notice that his egocentricities remain mostly unchanged. It is true that those relationships between himself and those around him are slightly less dysfunctional (like those with his "assistant" Stevie [Steve Little] and an obsessed fan who worships him). He even starts to look at them as real people with real concerns — so it seems. This doesn’t mean that Kenny really learns anything about generosity by the end of season two. It's just that, in a roundabout way, Kenny selfishly infers that those who love him the most will always be there to stroke his ego. Stevie is a perfect example of this. Season two is in many ways a bromantic comedy between the two characters because in season two, Stevie isn’t just a hanger-on. In Kenny’s eyes, Stevie evolves into a human leech.
When a representative from Tampa’s major league team, the unnamed Bay Rays, reveals that he wasn’t officially authorized to offer Kenny a deal, our anti-hero flees to Mexico to lick his wounds. While there, Kenny replaces Stevie with Aaron (Deep Roy), a pugnacious, switchblade-wielding dwarf from Bombay who winds up robbing Kenny at knife-point twice (see the season two outtakes reel to see Roy taunt a victim about his “burrito” and threaten to cut off his “titties”). Stevie leaves his job at a Starbucks-type coffee house in order to track Kenny done using credit card receipts (Kenny’s been using Stevie credit card to pay for $22,000 worth of debauchery, including cock-fighting, prostitutes and hallucinogens).
Admittedly, the fact that Aaron makes Kenny realize just how good he had it with Stevie says a lot more about Kenny’s drive towards willful ignorance than it does about his relationship with Stevie. Kenny periodically goes through cycles of false enlightenment where it seems like he’s on the verge of making a breakthrough and cleaning up his act. That happened in almost every episode of season one, wherein Kenny makes a number of misguided attempts to better himself that all wind up biting him in the ass. So when the Tampa rep tells Kenny the bad news, it hurts Stevie pretty badly, too.
Stevie is so madly in love with Kenny that at the end of season one, he quits teaching just to follow in his hero’s footsteps—all the way to Tampa from North Carolina with no promise of a job or recompense beyond being able to bask in Kenny’s dickish glory. But Kenny shuts that idea down in the season one finale even before he learns that there is no job waiting for him in Tampa. He would have rejected Stevie earlier but he just didn’t know how.
Which is why it’s so important that Kenny momentarily learns to appreciate Stevie (in his own way). It’s true that at one point Kenny wantonly demands that Stevie get rid of the woman he will later ask to marry him. And the happy place that he leaves Stevie at at the end of the season two finale is surely a temporary respite. But once Kenny accepts the fact that Stevie has a love interest independent of his life with Kenny, he even goes so far as to help Stevie smuggle his wife over the Mexican border into America. As far as gestures go, this is a big one for Kenny. It happens by without commentary or complaint from him because, on some level, he has accepted Stevie as a desperate individual and not just a Kenny Powers clone.
Much like how many of the best jokes in Eastbound & Down are the ones that wring humor out of the most accidental and/or improvisatory details, the fact that Kenny helps Stevie’s wife without protest is a big temporary step forward for Kenny. It shows you that sub-consciously, he’s accepted the declaration Stevie makes at the end of season one when he strolls up to Kenny with a bottle of steroids in one hand and a syringe in the other. Kenny marvels, “You came back for me,” and Stevie smiles knowingly, “No, I never really left.” It’s only a matter of time until Stevie gets his heart stomped on by Kenny in season three. But until then, Stevie is more than just another little person Kenny thinks he has to step on to succeed. He’s a real lackey now and that’s probably as good a sign of any that Kenny has learned something during his brief but memorable time as America’s brightest egomaniac.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, The Extended Cut