Eastbound & Down, the obnoxiously funny HBO comedy about washed-up baseball player Kenny Powers (Danny McBride), debuted on Feb. 15, 2009. And while it's not quite as widely beloved or influential as other 2009 debuts like Parks and Recreation, Community or Modern Family, it's the one that best captures the bleak energy of that weird year — and now feels more timely than ever, for better and worse.
The show was executive-produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay in the midst of their era-defining, Judd Apatow-assisted hot streak. On Eastbound & Down, Ferrell had a hilarious supporting role as a debauched BMW dealership owner, Ashley Schaeffer, and McKay directed an episode of Season 1. But the Gary Sanchez guys' roles was really to anoint the then-up-and-coming creative forces behind the show, Danny McBride and Jody Hill (the third co-creator, Ben Best, left between Seasons 1 and 2 for reasons that have never been fully explained). McBride, Hill and Best were coming off the indie success of their 2006 movie The Foot Fist Way, which introduced audiences to their pet theme of Southern suburban masculinity that refused to acknowledge its own self-destructive toxicity. That movie, where McBride played an unhinged strip-mall tae kwon do instructor, caught the attention of Ferrell and McKay. Soon, McBride and Hill were part of the Judd Apatow Expanded Universe, leading to McBride's supporting roles in movies like Tropic Thunder and Pineapple Express, the latter of which was directed by his and Hill's frequent collaborator and North Carolina buddy David Gordon Green (who directed numerous episodes of Eastbound & Down throughout its four-season run).
So while Eastbound & Down was co-signed by two of the leading comedy luminaries of the day, it really belonged to McBride and Hill, who had their own unique vision. It had the every-line-is-a-joke improvisational feel of an Apatow production, but it was much darker and more character-driven. Eastbound & Down's first season tells the story of the humbling of one-time baseball star, Kenny Powers. The pitcher washed out of the MLB due to partying and running his mouth too much. Out of shape and out of money, he moved home to North Carolina to live with his brother Dustin (John Hawkes) and Dustin's family. Powers took a job as a gym teacher at his old middle school and plotted his comeback, which entailed both returning to the big leagues and winning back his high school girlfriend, April Buchanan (Katy Mixon), who had since become a teacher at the school and was subsequently engaged to its principal, Terrence Cutler (Andy Daly). Helping him get there was a sycophantic music teacher, Stevie Janowski (Steve Little), with whom Powers developed one of TV's grimmest codependent relationships.
The character of Kenny Powers is influenced by two of the great HBO antiheroes who preceded him, Larry David and Tony Soprano. Eastbound & Down filters Curb Your Enthusiasm's rejection of political correctness and social norms and The Sopranos' focus on a despicable person whose charisma makes you have to root for him through McBride and Hill's personal fixation on delusional men. Powers is pretty much everything bad a person can be: cruel, bigoted, selfish, lazy, addicted to his own ego. He partakes in drugs and sex to excessive levels. He's the perfect ugly American, one who maintains his belief in his own greatness despite everything in his life telling him he blew it. "I'm the man who has the ball. I'm the man who can throw it faster than f---. So that is why I am better than everyone in the world," Powers says in his audiobook memoir, to which he listens throughout the season in an effort to self-motivate. "Kiss my ass and suck my d--k... everyone." The audiobook plays as a voiceover while Powers does things like sniff bumps of cocaine in the parking lot before school.
Maybe we should have paid more attention to what Powers was saying. When Eastbound & Down premiered in 2009, the Great Recession was at its peak and America was in a deep financial crisis of its own making. But like Powers ("I am better than everyone in the world"), many people believed the economic woes facing the nation were just a temporary setback, a pause before it was time to buy another jet ski — real or metaphorical. That delusion of grandeur, in part, was a key component of Donald Trump's presidential campaign and has been a bedrock of his presidency. Recall this comment to his supporters during a speech in North Dakota last year: "We got more money, we got more brains, we got better houses and apartments, we got nicer boats, we're smarter than they are and they say they're the elite. You're the elite, we're the elite." Ten years later, it doesn't feel like America has really learned anything from its mistakes — much like Kenny Powers himself. We are truly an Eastbound & Down nation.
(An aside: Despite sharing some personality similarities — specifically around their own egos — McBride previously said he felt Powers wouldn't have supported Donald Trump. "I think he'd want to challenge Trump," the actor told The Daily Beast in 2016. McBride, however, prefers not to talk politics during interviews. "I'm one of the least-political people you'll ever interview," he told Rolling Stone in 2016. He hasn't weighed in on whether Powers would have voted for Trump in the election — but you can answer that question for yourself.)
The politics of a fictional character aside, Eastbound & Down feels very of its time in its ruthlessly, relentlessly funny comedy stylings — the only current shows that have as many jokes/go as mean are Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Veep, both of which are ending. But it was a little ahead of its time in its storytelling. It's structured like a drama, though only in form, not content. It's the story of a flawed man seeking redemption that unfolds over the course of the whole season rather than episodically, made by people who came up through indie film rather than television. In that way, it anticipated the half-hour dramedy that would fully come into vogue a few years later (if Eastbound & Down was less funny it might get characterized as a dramedy). A show like Russian Doll, with its short season, cinematic look and feel and fixation on one character in a very specific world, is a descendant of Eastbound & Down.
Eastbound & Down also feels of its moment in how it traffics in the politically incorrect. While the show doesn't condone Kenny's behavior, it doesn't hate him for it either. Justifiably or not, it's hard to imagine this character hitting the air in 2019 without a lot of accompanying cultural discourse. McBride and Hill's HBO follow-up, Vice Principals, was very similar to Eastbound & Down but wasn't as well-received when it ran in 2016 and 2017 — perhaps because people weren't as comfortable laughing at straight white men behaving terribly as they used to be. It all feels a little darker now. But Eastbound & Down was dark then too, and if you still like dark, amoral comedy that's funny as hell, it holds up.
At just six half-hour episodes, Season 1 of Eastbound & Down is a very easy binge. It predated the streaming era, but now it feels tailored to it. You could watch it this weekend and still have time to check out Jody Hill's other contribution to the culture in 2009, Observe and Report, which was released almost contemporaneously with Eastbound & Down and is one of the darkest comedies ever put out by a major studio. And then you could follow that up with Halloween, directed by David Gordon Green and co-written by McBride, which shows what else they're capable of as creatives. All of this can help you prepare for McBride's next HBO comedy, The Righteous Gemstones, which premieres later this year. But how that one will look in 2029 is anyone's guess.
Eastbound & Down is available to stream on HBO Go/HBO Now and Amazon Prime.