Monday, March 9, 2009

Most Broke Major Leaguers Are Like This

"Eastbound and Down"
HBO via On-Demand

While HBO's dramas are fretted-over, movie-budgeted things with huge production teams and high-level executive oversight, their comedies tend to be relatively shoestring productions. A successful HBO drama requires heft and expensive sets. Their hit comedies are mostly the result of catching funny people when they're hot -- Larry David fresh off "Seinfeld," Ricky Gervais right after the BBC "Office," Flight of the Conchords just when they had written enough good songs for one funny season. The not funny but popular "Entourage" launched at the time when its also not funny but popular exec producer/inspiration Mark Wahlberg was at the height of his powers. (Both have since declined.)

It remains to be seen whether Danny McBride of Pineapple Express and The Foot Fist Way has the range to do more than one character. Will Ferrell, in an extended cameo in the second episode of McBride's new HBO series "Eastbound and Down," has finally fallen prey to the old comedians' bane where the thinks anything he does is funny -- I have the recorder scheduled to tape his live Bush special, but my hopes are not high. McBride, on the other hand, has developed a persona that's been consistently laugh-out-loud in his brief exposure to date. He plays a hugely overconfident, obnoxious idiot who plays as sympathetic for no reason other than McBride's hangdog appearance. With his timeless mullet and wounded defensiveness, he's so obviously headed for his just desserts that you can't help but root for him. He has a bit of Basil Fawlty or Johnny Drama in him.

McBride plays Kenny Powers, a washout smoke-throwing relief pitcher who hasn't adjusted to the fact that three years have gone by since last his name drew any water. He goes to work as a substitute gym teacher in his hometown. "Eastbound and Down" doesn't stretch far for plot material, stealing at will from "Strangers With Candy" and other single-camera sitcoms. Director David Gordon Green gives the second and third episodes a languid, art-film quality that's so inappropriate to the material that it's kind of funny all by itself. The quicker-cut pilot is the slightest of the three episodes I've seen so far, but they're all pretty funny. McBride's comedy style relies a little heavily on obscene language but the show is set up so that the scenes themselves are funny and the improvised dialogue only reinforces them. "Deadwood" alum John Hawkes gives the show some gravitas, perhaps more than it needs or deserves, as McBride's character's working-dude older brother.

It's not the sort of thing that has the legs to run for four or more seasons, but in a down season it helps HBO to have another comedy that actually makes people laugh. The way each episode begins exactly where the last left off is cute and gives the show an extra kick when you're watching several episodes in a row, which is surely how most people will experience "Eastbound and Down" through DVD, On Demand, and the internet. I wouldn't overload on too many at once, as we're not talking about the kind of engrossing storytelling for which HBO wins awards. However, "Eastbound" has "Deadwood," "Six Feet Under," and "The Sopranos" beaten even within its first three episodes for topless jetskiiing scenes.

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