December 7, 2013

In praise of Eastbound & Down.

In this age of television antiheroes, let us kneel at the altar of Kenny Powers.

An oft-deplorable man who toed the line of irredeemable on a weekly basis, only to win us back through crippling honesty and sheer force of will. Comedy or drama, now or then, there's been no character quite like him.

We were overjoyed to live inside Tony Soprano's head for a while, but there wasn't much to love. Vic Mackey's finest hour was admitting all the horrible things he'd done and walking out a free man. Walter White did some right at the end, but only after so much wrong. Al Swearengen comes close, but by the end of Deadwood he was firmly on the side of good.

And when it comes to comedy, there's no competition. No show has ever pushed boundaries like Eastbound & Down, and I don't just mean all the boobs and butts. A drama can slowly peel back the layers of its tortured protagonist -- by the time Don Draper is at his most deplorable, we have some insight as to why -- but comedy, as it exists on television, demands some sort of relatable lead. Or at least a sympathetic buffoon like David Brent.

But Kenny Powers asks for no sympathy. He was fully formed from day one, a man-child unable to function in society. He mistreated pretty much everyone around him, sometimes humorously but often just to reestablish his standing in a very sad pecking order. But we understood why his essence could be so intoxicating, and we appreciated every fleeting moment of clarity as he struggled against his own demons, and what he felt was expected of him by the world at large.

And in a roundabout way, that's what made him relatable. He's a man striving for the gold in a disposable world, with no use for those its already chewed up and spit out. His 30 seconds of fame ended a while ago, but Kenny still struggles against the tide. This is noble at times, sad at others, but it helps him discover what he needs to fill the void in his soul.

What ultimately redeems Kenny, in both the universe of the show and for us viewers, is his self-awareness. His eyes and facial expresses betray a hidden intelligence; he knows when he's burying himself. He looks for a release in sex and drugs, but that's never properly satisfying. He wants to be loved and admired, at first by the world but eventually by the people he cares about. And the real trick is accepting that such love isn't conditional; he doesn't have to remain impressive, bombastic or outrageous. He can just be.

Of course, employing the charms of Danny McBride don't hurt. That hidden intelligence belongs to McBride, and he perfectly captures Kenny as a man unable to convey the churning emotions within. So when he finally does reveal his inner thoughts, it doesn't feel forced, or in service of the story. It feels like he's finally sunken low enough, or become so desperate, that they can't help but seep out.

To me, the first and last seasons of Eastbound are the only ones that really matter. Kenny's journey from comeback kid to reluctant father-slash-husband is important, but the bookends are the whole story. His readjustment to society, and then his acceptance of life's simpler pleasures, bring his character full circle. And an opportunity as a sportscaster is such a logical spot for Kenny to end up; it's almost the same amount of fame for even less work, a world his outsized personality could probably inhabit forever. The fact that he walks away is tantamount to his growth, or at least his understanding of self.

It's not like Eastbound gets preachy and insists that marriage and kids are the only path to happiness. But Kenny has seen the strength its brought his brother Dustin, and the (usually fucked-up) joy it brings Stevie Janowski, and we know he loves April. What it ultimately comes down to, more than dedication to holy matrimony, is the realization that satisfaction may lie in a place he never anticipated. We don't know how things will work out for the family Powers, but Kenny seems to comprehend that stability isn't failure. That feels like definitive progress.

In a way, Eastbound & Down ends similarly to The Shield. Not from a thematic standpoint; Vic Mackey remains an animal on the prowl, while Kenny Powers finally appears content. But as both wrap up, we're left to ponder the future of these fully formed characters. Will Vic strike back at those who've caged him? Will Kenny be able to exist in a domestic world? It's open-ended but also a summation of the story as a whole, which is the lofty goal that every television series should shoot for. Everything doesn't have to end when the cameras stop rolling. The adventures of Kenny Powers continue on, even if we can't see them, and that's the show's final victory.

Plus, there's this:

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