Kenny Powers is one hell of an American. In many ways, he’s the embodiment of the country’s id. Brash, staggeringly overconfident without any quantifiable success in years, he meanders through life on his own terms, knowing that he is the best no matter what gigantic flaws might be evident. So evident, in fact, that it even cracks his put-on image just enough to legitimately affect him, but not enough to really affect the persona. “Kenny Powers” is the big shot pitcher who won a world series by himself (just ask him about it) and has a god-given gift to throw the ball “faster than fuck.” As we pick up with Kenny after he’s hit rock bottom–as evidenced by the shocking conclusion to the first season–where do we pick up our mulleted hero? In Mexico, kinda doing the same ol’ shit. And that’s sort of a problem.
The brilliance of that first season of Eastbound and Down was its direct view on fame in our American culture and our entitlement once we attain it. The same rules apply from my post on the current crop of twenty-year-olds: if you hear you’re special enough times, you start to believe it. And once you’re special, how the hell could you ever stop being so? It’s your destiny, your right, to hit a certain plateau and stay there. If you’ve earned something once, you’ve earned it forever.
In many ways, E&D is the true American response to Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s groundbreaking series The Office. Critics love it’s statements about the current work-a-day culture and Gervais and Merchant say it’s a show about comedy and what it means in society, but I always viewed it as a desperate plea for attention and fame. David Brent, Gervais’ character and the basis for Steve Carrell’s “Michael Scott,” always went out of his way to put himself forward, be it incredibly selfish behavior or to mug to the camera about how much he cares for various issues, or showing off his groundbreaking, stream of conscious bullshit pep talks about workplaces and synergy and the like.
Essentially, Brent was the only character self-aware enough to try and use the cameras and “documentary” to his advantage, which is incredibly smart for such a selfish character. Or, he’s the only one petty and small enough to care about his image and what this could do for his “career,” including his apparent future in comedy, when he works in a dead-end job that eventually gets him nowhere. He stood for the now-common idea that if you are good enough to be on TV, then you have to be an exemplary human being in some shape or way. That fame could be instant and found without much work while somehow acting as if you earned it; ending up well-known because you hit yourself in the face with a watermelon.
As Kenny Powers (Danny McBride) drives around in season one, listening to his own self-congratulatory autobiography, it becomes apparent that Kenny’s famous because he’s destined to be so. At one point in the pilot, he mentions that all of his victories in life came because of him. Notice that he was a relief pitcher who got one batter out in the bottom of the 9th with two outs in the World Series. The basis of the job is to only do so much. Hell, he only through 5 or 6 pitches. Crucial, yes, but very obviously he didn’t do it by himself. He barely did anything at all. So he carried on through his hometown like the giant star he believes he is, only to end up crashing out because of his own hubris and inability to show that he wasn’t the star he says he is.
We pick up with Kenny in Mexico, now named Stephen Janowski after his sycophant former high school teaching colleague, trying to take the cock fighting ring by storm. Cock fighting is a sport where he literally can’t get hurt, only in the wallet, and even that he screw up (and ends up getting robbed at the end by two bozos). Clearly he’s running, but from what? Kenny makes comments about the noble sacrifices he made, but that was only because of his inability to fess up to the people he loved that he wasn’t who he said he was. The saddest part is that they would have all been fine if it happened like it turned out; hell, it’d make more sense to them than immediately getting back to the majors (as we saw in Episode 2 when his brother Dustin and his wife laughed as he began “training for the majors”).
When he makes statements like “I’m not really who I am,” it’s hard to take seriously after watching an hour of Don Draper wrestling with his true past as Dick Whitman, who has a real crisis of identity on his hands. Why couldn’t he be Kenny Powers in Mexico? Because he thinks he’s so famous that he’ll be recognized, and…what? When he finally enters the playing field like an adult, worst-case-scenario Kelly Leak from The Bad News Bears, he immediately brings the practice to a halt and gathers everyone around (reminiscent of the scene in the pilot where he tells the entire school via intercom that he’s teaching at the school, in another “who gives a fuck?” moment). He starts, “I know a lot of you have seen me around town, goin’ ‘hey there’s Steve, the new guy, the cock fighter who’s going around running shit.'” And of course, no one knows what he’s talking about or gives a shit. It’s not even in Spanish. They just want to get back to their practice.
So what makes this adventure different from the last? Kenny himself mentions that this is like the Spanish-speaking version of his previous escapades in South Carolina. He’s trying to get his career back, he has a family and a pseudo-version of his brother below where he lives that he apparently needs to connect with, a girl from his past that is presently engaged with another guy who is threatening to Kenny, one person who believes in him while the rest cast him off, and, of course, his staggering megalomania that can be punctured by moments of clarity that come through in tears. Doesn’t this just all feel…well-tread?
The real kick to the ending of the first season is that after all he went through, and how much of a prick he was to those who loved him, he did just enough to start to win the battle against his ego and accept his fate when the game brought him and his giant head back. That was the fatal flaw that drove him to Mexico and away from April in the first place. It was the same thing that you knew was going to happen from the first time he entered the picture. It was the only thing Kenny Powers could do: run and avoid the failure his life has become. His character flaws are still just as glaring as his trademark mullet.
With that in mind, and with the way this season is rolling out, how can this end in any other way than failure? Was that glimpse of comfort at the dinner table real, or yet another tease that goes nowhere? As a viewer who didn’t want to see a second season because of how perfectly contained and wonderful that first season was, I don’t want to be fooled by E&D the same way Kenny fools those in his life. He has to change, as does the show itself. This first episode doesn’t inspire much confidence, but then again, neither does Kenny’s “I’ll show up on Friday” game preperation. But, like the characters on the show, I just can’t give up on the guy. Well, I guess we all just have to hope he won’t less us down.
What did you guys think about the show last night? I really didn’t find myself laughing all that much, especially since I was DYING watching the first few episodes of season one over the weekend. Did you guys have a better time than me? I truly hope you did. I want to love this show again, but I’m…reserved. Try and tip me over, if you could.
Image credit goes to this wonderful site