Saturday, August 6, 2011

Eastbound and Down 1-05: "Chapter Five"

The Wildcard entry is a slot I put into my usual weekly randomizer to get me to explore the wider world of television as a form and not just examine individual pieces. The channel numbers on my cable service go up past 1800, which doesn't mean there are 1800+ channels, but that still means there's a heck of a lot more that makes up the vast morass of television than the handful of cable dramas and anime series that I regularly watch. Eastbound and Down is not an exceptionally strange thing to find at the end of one of these wildcard randomizers. It is, however, a strange path that lead me to it.

Through ample use of I landed on Eastbound and Down not on HBO, where it originated, but on The Score, Canada's third-tier sports network. The show can certainly be described as sports-related, centred around an arrogant baseball star who returns to his hometown retired and broke. But despite this episode ending in a climactic pitching contest, the actual sport seems to be beside the point in Eastbound and Down. Even for a sports network to branch into scripted programming it seems like a show like Friday Night Lights, which focuses much heavier on the sport in question, would be a better fit. In part this is a product of the cobbled-together nature of cable television – if you can pick up a good show in syndication*, grab it, even if it doesn't really fit your network's remit. This is why most cable channels, at least most of the ones anyone watches, seem to have little to do with whatever their name implies. (Can you believe that TLC was once an educational network?)

But there's more than that here. The Score airs Eastbound and Down twice a week, after both of the WWE's weekly shows. This means that the sports network is now pretty much airing two nights a week of scripted programming. This isn't just network drift. This is a question of whether the essential nature of sports requires it to be a legitimate contest with an unplanned outcome.

If we view the essential point of sports as an attempt to determine who the best runner or fighter or soccer team in the country or the world is, then the answer seems like an obvious yes. But the entertainment complex that's built up around sports has a different point entirely. If our interest was essentially in the competition, then team sports wouldn't be so popular – after all, as far as burning athletic questions go “which billionaire can hire the best people that can play the confusing sport known as American football” is not really at the top of the list. But the reason people turn into a sports game isn't just interest in who's the better competitor. The main draw is a mixture of athletic spectacle and emotional catharsis shaped by the storylines developed by the commentariat. This is a description that could just as well fit the draws of pro wrestling – or, for that matter, a Harlem Globetrotters game or ballet or the football sequences in Friday Night Lights. This all stems from the turn of the millenium, when sports realized in pro wrestling (which was finally abandoning the remaining shreds of kayfabe) and drama realized in reality TV the same thing almost simultaneously: that as far as entertainment goes, it really doesn't matter if a story is real, fake, or something in between. Eastbound and Down is a lot further afield than this (there's no element of athletic spectacle and unlike the WWE it doesn't formally ape a sports broadcast), but it's easy to see how there's a small leap from following the troubles of a disgraced ex-player in real life and following one in fiction.

So, uh, Eastbound and Down. I've only watched one episode of the rest of the series, in a rare bout of channel-surfing some time ago, but despite being a heavily serialized storyline it's not really hard to follow. Of course, it doesn't hurt that this episode (the unimaginatively-titled “Chapter Five”) begins with a recap of sorts, in which a despondent Kenny records an “audiobook” lamenting his problems and his descent to normal people status. Typically we would expect this to be the end of his character arc – the arrogant athlete made humble who commits himself to a life among regular people and not looking down upon them. But in Eastbound and Down, this is the lowest point for Kenny. As much as we're supposed to laugh at his ego and macho personality, the show is also a kind of celebration of that all-American brashness, and in this episode it becomes clear that the narrative arc of this season is not about Kenny's reformation but whether Kenny can resist being reformed, whether his attitude will survive contact with his new mundane life.

In part this is just a function of the show's set-up. Eastbound and Down is basically centred around Kenny as the comedic disruptor: he walks into normal situations and makes them funny. Virtually every line that comes out of his mouth is made into a joke. Even lines that are there purely to advance the plot are twisted into laugh-lines through both a twisted dialogue style and Danny McBride's macho-casual way of delivering it. For example, in a scene with Kenny and Stevie just talking in a car, there's a dialogue exchange like this:

STEVIE: I hope we get in a car wreck right now, I do. I hope we get in a motherfucking car wreck. I hope we do. I hope we get in a car wreck and then we can live in heaven.

KENNY: I'm not gonna get into a car wreck because I'm an excellent driver.

STEVIE: You're excellent at everything. I fucking hate it.

KENNY: I'm thinking we should just sit here quietly now, not really say anything, and let you just kind of contemplate the news I just dropped on you and let me kind of contemplate on my own pains and sorrows right now.

In this exchange Stevie has the major joke (the bit about getting into a car wreck and living in heavan), but even as something of the straight man Kenny still twists everything through his style. His responses are versions of what would be expected but strange versions. It's kind of exhausting at times, the barrage of jokes that constantly comes out of his mouth. In this way it's the type of comedy typically made by episode director Adam McKay and producer and guest star Will Ferrel – a man with cartoonishly exaggerated vices (usually played by Ferrel, but here with McBride) interacting with a mostly sttraight world. The arc of these movies usually trends towards the redemption of the main character, but while they can be redeemed they can never be truly changed, because it's their vices that make them funny and draw us to the film in the first place. As much as we migh not like hanging around someone like Kenny Powers in real life, we like hanging out with him on TV for half an hour every week, because he makes us laugh, and to that extent as viewers we don't want him to change. For television this dilemna applies even more: if the show is to continue after the redemption arc, what's going to make the comedy work?

This is why, essentially, the climax of the episode and I believe of the entire season – the pitching context at the used car dealership – is not one of redemption but of un-redemption, of Kenny Powers reclaiming his old arrogance. Faced with his old baseball rival, Kenny misses a couple times before taking his eye out with a vicious bean. This is, of course, a parody of a climax, complete with slow-motion celebration and dramatic music that contrasts well with the fact that a guy just got his eye torn out Dan Dorrity-style – but in the narrative it's also a celebration of Kenny's return to being an egoistic asshole.

Now, needless to say, this is kind of problematic. Kenny's machismo and other faults are mocked but celebrated by the show. On the other hand, less macho characters – such as his romantic competitor Terence or the bitchy city lady in this episode – are mocked a lot less warmly. Like the protagonists of Will Ferrel movies, while Kenny is a buffoon he's also meant to be a lovable one. In the A.V. Club review Nathan Rabin writes
I think by this point we love Kenny just the way he is: insane, arrogant and swimming with venereal diseases and substance abuse problems.” Kenny Powers and the comedic protagonist archetype he belongs to are loved because they embody pure untrammeled id: they can do and say the things that we know are wrong and a bad idea, but secretly wish we could.

I think there's a darker side to this character type too. There's a long line of loveable assholes which runs down the TV geneaology from Eastbound and Down to All in the Family, including such diverse shows as It's Always Sunny and The Sopranos. The loveable asshole is usually contrasted with a blue-state foil, the unloveable good person (Terence in this show, Bruce Mathis in It's Always Sunny, etc.) This is an interesting enough idea individually, but it's become so prevalent that it risks permanently inverting our morality. Read any forum or comment thread about The Sopranos and you'll find that the most despised characters are not the murderers and mobsters that populate the show but characters like Noah and the various psychiatrists who are only guilty of being kind of smarmy. This is the essence of red state politics: it's better to be ignorant than arrogant. If Obama was elected by playing Bill Cosby, then Bush the second was elected by playing Archie Bunker.

It's probably not fair to saddle that on Eastbound and Down, and it doesn't exactly fit the situation – after all, Kenny is more arrogant than any of his foils, but he does so in a more manly way, and that's supposed to make us root for him. The montage at the finale of “Chapter Five” where he embraces April in slow-motion after “winning” the pitching contest is obviously viewed through an ironic filter, but it's kidding on the square: we're supposed to celebrate as the he-man Kenny wins the girl from his effeminate rival. The audience's intended reaction is suggested by the reaction of the in-show audience at the dealership, who cheer on Kenny and take him as an inspiration to start living out their id and smashing stuff.

The love interest April also presents another problem with the “loveable asshole” character: women never get to inhabit this trope. If a woman does a tenth of the things that a character like Kenny Powers does, she's a bitch, and there's no such thing as a “loveable bitch” (see the “city bitch” in this episode, who is portrayed negatively for mostly just being bossy.) In the traditional sitcom the woman is there to be the ever-suffering wife, there to look hot and be the straight man and not do much else. To be fair April does get in some funny lines here, mocking Kenny's premature ejaculation in the previous episode, but there's an obvious visual difference between the genders here. The male half of the cast is a theatre of grotesques, with ugly faces and uglier hairstyles. April is a pneumatic brunette who's practically popping out of her shirt. The climactic kiss scene is reminiscent of those cartoons when an anthropomorphic cartoon critter would fall in love with a realistic-looking woman.

Eastbound and Down does have it's virtues. It's one of those shows that goes for a joke every three seconds and at that rate even with limited accuracy you're bound to get a lot of hits. Danny McBride's way of inflecting each line with Kenny is also quite wonderful, although it's worrisome that other than McBride the rest of the regular cast is outshone by two guest stars (Will Ferrel as a Ric Flair hairdo-sporting car salesman and Craig Robinson as Kenny's longtime baseball rival.) But there's still something that stops me from getting into it. The kind of ideological rant above might not have much to do with it – after all, what I've said about the “loveable asshole” can just as easily be applied to It's Always Sunny, a show I love – but there's still a lot of ugliness on screen, on an aesthetic level more than a moral one, and I have a hard time distinguishing between the ugliness I'm supposed to love and the ugliness I'm not.

* Strictly speaking this can't be called syndication, as Eastbound and Down only has thirteen episodes and not the hundred or so usually required, but the principle is the same. This is also a kind of ratings grab as syndicated shows always are, looking to capitalize on the recent E&D-related memes and ad campaigns.

Next Week: More of The Shield, now with Glenn Close.

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