This was originally posted on Medium, and I am including it here because the HBO show, Eastbound & Down is certainly not amusing to your average viewer. The characters are morally inept, offensive, and often over the top. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. However, it is also fascinatingly dark and even after three very short seasons, it’s one of the best character studies on television.
I am sure most reviews of Eastbound & Down describe its central figure, Kenny Powers, as an anti-hero. It’s not wrong; Kenny Powers is narcissistic, offensive, judgmental and manipulative. Not to mention racist, sexist and all the “ists” you can think of. Yet we still route for him. He’s funny and actually quite charming at times. But anti-hero doesn’t quite cut it, because Eastbound & Down, and the world Kenny Powers inhabits, is so far from reality that in fact, it is more accurately described as a modern fairy tale.
Kenny Powers, despite being a former major league baseball star, is the epitome of the “redneck” stereotype. He is never without his mullet and jean shorts, his fancy dress includes black jeans, a fringed cowboy shirt and boots. His prized possession is a neon jet ski covered in what looks like the costume of a pro-wrestler. His goals are solely hedonistic: the pursuit of alcohol, drugs, and casual sex. That’s not to say he has deeper goals, he does yearn for his childhood sweetheart April, to be a better father to his son, and his deep insecurities and need for external validation dive his motivation to be the celebrity of baseball, whether he is playing on a regional team in Mexico or in a minor league team in Myrtle Beach.
Kenny’s world is full of over the top characters that are also devoid of a sense of decency and are the moral bottom of society. There is little or no reality or sense of order. Those who serve as the sense of reason are brushed off quickly. The outlaws, so to speak, run free, and Kenny’s actions show a complete lack of knowledge about emotional maturity. He barges in on funerals, he speaks in expletives, he barges into college classrooms to see his co-ed girlfriend. Much of his inappropriateness is played for laughs, but it also shows that he lives in a world with no moral compass or boundaries. There are rarely any times when his behavior is stopped- even when getting drunk and belligerent at his son’s first birthday party, April and his family grit roll their eyes and frown at him, there’s no real consequences. In other words, a fantasy world. Just as in any classic fairy tale, we see the usual elements:
Overcoming Obstacles to Win the Princess:
Despite all his partying ways and various sexual exploits, his actions always are a direct or indirect reason to win back April, whether it is eliminating her other suitors, bettering himself, or caring for the child. In order to get there, he has to slay the dragons, defeat villains, and meet colorful characters along the way, all of may detract him from the goal.
I have interrupt myself here because e of you that know me are probably wondering if I take issue with this anti-feminist aspect of the fairy tale theory. Of course I do. But trying to apply feminist theory to Eastbound & Down is pointless. It’s anti-feminist stance is very apparent, and dare I say intentional; everything about the entire show is anti-progressive. It’s part of the satirical element of the show. Does it bother me when I watch it? Of course, on some level, but it also helps shape this universe where reality is skewed; nothing is appropriate about anything. However, the character of April is the “prize”, but to give credit where credit is due, she’s not a one-dimensional damsel in distress. Often the barriers to Kenny is her non-acceptance of him, but to tell you the truth, it’s also a fantasy world in which this smart, successful woman would want anything to do with him. How’s that for a fairy tale?
Kenny Power’s opponents are even more over the top than he is. They are pure evil and their motivations are all for self-preservation. There’s Ashley Schaeffer, played by Will Farrell in a flowing blond wig, a greedy car dealership owner who lives on a plantation and still treats his staff like they are on one. He forces Kenny’s trusty sidekick to dress like a Geisha and prostitute himself for Korean investors. One bizarre scheme tops the next. For entertainment he has Kenny and his sidekick run and dodge cannonballs.
Russian pitching sensation-slash-superstar DJ Ivan Pacheco tries to steal Kenny’s social capital from the team. Kenny defeats him by crashing his club debut and setting off fireworks. Here Ivan is not a direct obstacle to April, but is a perceived obstacle from kenny being let back into the major leagues, his supposed happily ever after. In Mexico, corrupt drug dealers, not to mention his own father, try to defeat him in their pursuit of wealth and, seemingly for their own evil plans.
Even Cutler, the nerdy principal of the high school Kenny worked at in Season One, kept him from April and impeded all of his behaviors as a teacher at the school. These villains are defeated, yet often return in the subsequent season, ready for another round of combat.
Most of the villains have silent but maniacal henchmen. Kenny has his version of a comedic sidekick in Stevie Janowski. Since the whole show is practically farce, Stevie just can’t be comic relief; his presence is based on horrific schadenfreude. Kenny first meets him at the beginning of his journey, is put off by his pathetic presence. Stevie is blindly, obsessively loyal to Kenny, to the point of sacrificing his own humanity and sense of dignity. It has only been the end of this current season where Stevie comes into his own and seems to have his own purpose and not just being devoted to Kenny. He’s Donkey from Shrek, but a whole lot more pitiful.
In classic, more traditional fairy tales, we are assumed to root for the hero. Why do we care if Cinderella gets to the ball? Why do we care that Nemo is found? Is it because they are deemed virtuous and good? Is it simply because they are the main character in the story, so by default they are our hero? Kenny’s morals and virtue are questionable to say the least. In the fantasy world set up by the show, we somehow still see him as the hero and cheer when he overcomes evil and finds love. He’s pretty bad, but by comparison, he’s not the worst, which I suppose makes him a good person. At the end of season three, he seems to have achieved his “happily ever after,” when reuniting with April and his son. The show will run for one more season, and we can be sure he’ll still be defeating evil villains in a fantasy world.