And the award for feel-bad show of the week goes to…
HBO’s “Eastbound and Down” has never been a particularly warm and fuzzy viewing experience. Its lead character is a repugnant megalomaniac redneck racist drug addict and a washed-up loser, not that we’re judging anyone here. Despite that, for two seasons we’ve seen Kenny Powers (played perfectly by Danny McBride) and been amused by his exploits; for as utterly unlikable as his character is, the “Eastbound” team — McBride, along with creators Jody Hill and Ben Best — have made him pretty hard not to like. Until now, that is.
The current season of “Eastbound” is spiraling into an abyss of darkness, and Powers is getting close to intolerable. The season premiere, in which Powers was saddled with the responsibility of taking care of his unwanted baby, seemed to set up a story arc where we would see Powers grow up, accept responsibility, and finally learn a few life lessons. That was bothersome in its own right, as no one wants to see any “Three Men and a Baby”-style highjinks with Powers at the center. But what we’ve gotten instead is far more disturbing: With child, Powers has turned even more vile, pushing not only the envelope of good taste and human decency but becoming a caricature of himself in the process.
With his macho cluelessness and disregard for anyone’s feelings but his own, Powers has always been a stand-in for America, bullying everyone else around him while being impervious to their logic or reason. He’s raging with boundless self-confidence and dumb enough to think he’s earned it. He is “Top Gun,” the movie he loves to quote from with his pal Shane (Jason Sudeikis), his equally lugheaded best buddy. But at the close of the season’s third episode (BIG FAT SPOILER ALERT) Shane overdosed died from a cocaine overdose, and Powers’ reaction in this week’s episode pushed him beyond the brink of acceptability.
Powers, in order, covered up his involvement in Shane’s overdose; stole his car; had his hapless friend Stevie (Steve Little, Smithers to Powers’ Montgomery Burns) pose for pictures with his corpse; interrupted his funeral by playing a Candlebox song; and made an asinine, insulting, “Top Gun”-referencing speech at the ceremony, before running off through the cemetery. Stevie, meanwhile, cheated on his wife at the funeral with a stranger he met in a car, and puked on himself in the aftermath. This was all only slightly less disturbing than the overdose scene itself, when Shane collapsed while Powers danced in the mirror to the Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian,” oblivious to what was happening mere feet away. (I should mention the first thing Powers did after Shane died was do more cocaine.)
Jody Hill has become a specialist in making miserable, irredeemable lowlifes with irrational levels of self-esteem the centerpiece of his projects; see his “Observe and Report,” the signature moment of which finds his hero Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen) date-raping the girl of his dreams while she’s barely conscious (the scene is let off the hook, ever so slightly, by the fact that in her drunken stupor she encourages him). The confrontational Hill seems to revel in railing against audience expectations regarding his characters’ behavior and their expected redemption, but there’s only so much time you can spend with a jerk before you just want to stop spending time with him. “Eastbound” is starting to test those limits.
I doubt any “Eastbound and Down” fan is looking for the PG-13ization of Kenny Powers. But as a character, he’s simply getting impossible to empathize with, and as much as Hill tries to throw that convention in viewers’ faces, it remains something we need to be able to do. Tony Soprano was a murderer, but we loved him because he had a heart. Walter White is becoming almost recognizable as a human being, but we still root for him because somewhere in his soul he believes what he’s doing is right. (Maybe?) But Kenny Powers is getting more and more difficult to believe in or to like. You almost want to spit his favorite catchphrase right back at him: “You’re (bleeping) out.”