Kenny Powers is an awful man, but he's an awful man that we kind of love.
That's always been the perilous tug-of-war for HBO's Eastbound & Down, which wrapped up its fourth and final season last night. How do you build an entire show around a loathsome, narcissistic, white-trash loser but make him just likeable enough to keep audiences on board? That's the question that show cocreator and frequent director Jody Hill and star Danny McBride had to address with every episode of the series. If you want to utilize a colorful metaphor, it must have been like walking a tightrope over a pool filled with alligators. That's a good metaphor because it properly conveys the difficulty of making a character like Kenny Powers work and it conjures an image of McBride walking a tightrope over a pool filled with gators, which is certainly good for a laugh.
When we first met Kenny back at the start of season one, there was almost nothing to like about him. A hotshot baseball pitcher who let fame go to his head, he threw away a promising career, blew all of his money on drugs and nonsense and eventually retreated back to his hometown with his tail between his legs. Much of the comedy of the early episodes (and the rest of the series, really) stems from Kenny behaving in the worst possible manner, disrupting and/or destroying the lives of everyone in the near proximity. You can't count the number of times he abuses the trust of his straight-as-an-arrow brother Dustin (John Hawkes). It would be even more difficult to quantify how much damage he does to the life of his former girlfriend April (Katy Mixon).
But a funny thing started to happen as the first season progressed -- as Kenny's behavior got worse, he somehow managed to grow more sympathetic. Beneath his crude demeanor lurked a genuinely sweet guy, albeit a sweet guy who doesn't know the first thing about showing respect for anyone other than himself. You see, Kenny Powers may think of himself as God's gift the the sport of baseball (and the planet Earth), but we and everyone around him see him for what he really is: a completely broken nincompoop who can barely take care of himself. Of course he can't maintain a steady career or relationship. That would involve self-awareness, which Kenny was seemingly never born with.
The truth is that Kenny never really stops being awful, but he does slowly learn that he's far from perfect. He learns in increments, so we absorb his transformation in increments. When the show eventually asks us to truly start caring for this loudmouthed a**hole, we're ready to do so and we don't even know it. Kenny Powers is an antihero in the true HBO tradition, but unlike Tony Soprano or Nucky Thompson, there's rarely genuine malice or violence in Kenny's actions. He's an overgrown kid, a buffoon and nitwit, but he's not a monster. He's never intentionally cruel and he rarely sets out to hurt other people. Sure, he's frequent attempts at self-aggrandizement have their fair share of collateral damage, but Kenny Powers is a force of nature, not a calculating villain. You can't really get angry at a tornado for destroying your house and you can't really get angry at Kenny Powers for wrecking your day. The best thing to do is to grin, nod your head and let him do his thing. The person who suffers the most in the end is him and that's punishment enough. Kenny's real victories are few and far between and Eastbound & Down always managed to find a new low for Kenny to sink to in each season. In fact, his greatest and most lasting realizations come only after he's asked to engage in outright and deliberately cruel behavior. Not every jerk is a villain.
Which brings us to season four, which proved to be the best of the entire series. The season opens with Kenny neutered. He's given up baseball and his pursuit of glory to settle down. He's married April, who's a successful real estate agent. He has a lovely home and two lovely children. He even has a steady but dull job working at a car rental agency. For the first time in the series, we see Kenny taken down a few notches and it's where we've wanted him to be all along. We like him in spite of himself, so there's nothing better than seeing him humbled and free of his worst traits. But that's where Hill, McBride and the rest of their team pull their most devious trick: they once again put Kenny on the path to power and glory and we start to cheer him on, well aware that this spells certain doom for everything that's we've wanted him to get before. We empathize. We want the old Kenny back. If it wasn't all so screamingly funny, we'd be wondering what the hell we're thinking.
Kenny may not be be a truly cruel monster, but his creators sure are. In this wrecking ball of a man, we see ourselves. We know we probably can't be a criminal mastermind. We know we probably can't be a hard-drinking Baltimore detective. We know we probably can't be a super-sexy vampire. But we do know that we can be seduced by the promise of fame and we do know that everything that's truly important, like family, love, stability and leaving a lasting impact on the world, is fleeting and always on the verge of flying away. Kenny Powers is our id, the worst version of us. But in this worst version of us, there is still the capacity to learn, to evolve and to grow. It's never too late for Kenny. It's not too late for you. It's not too late for me. If Kenny can save the life and acknowledge the friendship of the long-suffering Stevie (the incredible Steve Little), we can mend just about anything we break.
There's no point in going into extreme detail about the final episode of Eastbound & Down. The show has literally just ended and if you haven't seen it yet, it's greatest surprises should remain, well, surprises. However, it's certainly a bittersweet experience. Once again, Kenny is humbled, but the show acknowledges that his troubles are far from over. Bumps lie on the road ahead and Kenny will be down and out before too long... only to once again rise like a phoenix, armed with just a little more knowledge. There's no cure for being Kenny Powers (or for you being you and me being me), but arming yourself with a road map of your strengths, weaknesses, delusions and vices is good start.
Eastbound & Down ends with one of the craziest montages ever to make it to television, but the sentiment at the heart of it all is as pure and sentimental as it gets: work to better yourself and try to leave behind something a little better than you. Kenny is flawed and possibly even broken, but after four seasons, he knows that. He'll do better. He has to. Whether we like it or not, we're just like Kenny: wildly imperfect and unaware of the state of our future harvest. We just have to concentrate on leaving behind excellent seeds.
Not bad for a raunchy comedy where everyone says "f**k" a lot.
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