The first episode of Eastbound & Down features the rise and fall of Kenny Powers, professional baseball player and perhaps the worst person that many people will ever meet. Brought low by a mix of laziness, drug addiction and an inherent inability to play nice with others, Powers finds himself substitute teaching at his old middle school and sleeping in the spare room of his brother’s house. Of course, Powers rarely sees it like the downward spiral that it is. Rather, it’s a temporary fall from grace, the calm before the storm of his comeback. It’s all a brief interlude in the Legend of Kenny Powers.
A lot of Danny McBride characters view life through these rosiest of lenses, particularly the ones in his trilogy of HBO series: Eastbound & Down, Vice Principals, and The Righteous Gemstones, the latest of which being my favorite thing currently on television. With collaborators like Jody Hill, David Gordon Green, and the late Ben Best, McBride has crafted perhaps the preeminent stories about mediocre men who are only heroes in the eyes of the miserable men who wish to be them. And by keeping it that way, they avoid a pitfall that many other series have encountered.
These shows are frequently referred to as “cringe comedy,” series that embrace a style that seems like improv as they derive laughs from discomfort. The BBC version of The Office is perhaps the first to be put on the Mt. Rushmore of this subgenre, but it’s joined by shows like the wildly popular U.S. version, the early seasons of Parks & Recreation, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. However, in their attempts to evolve and keep fresh, many of these change their course, taking the deeply flawed characters and effectively sanitizing them in their attempts to humanize them.
The Office and Parks & Recreation are frequently seen as sister series thanks to them sharing many of the same creative talents, but they also follow the same arc. Michael Scott, the bumbling boss of Dunder Mifflin, begins The Office as a caustic buffoon, so thoughtless to the world around him as to nearly incite white collar mutiny. He’s funniest as a man whose only victories come through pathetic delusion, but as seasons go by, the series begins to treat him more sympathetically.
He’s given a triumphant storyline with a love interest and his whole final episode is dedicated to just how much many of his co-workers will miss him. It’s a long way from the first installment, in which he pretends to fire his mild-mannered receptionist, driving her to openly weep in front of him. In his last, she embraces him in an airport, his blind abrasiveness now transformed into a lovable quirk. Parks & Rec follows suit, its characters’ self-destructive tendencies neutered to present a Happily Ever After.
On one hand, it’s a natural progression for plenty of TV shows, but it tends to divide a series into two halves: The early bit and the part where we have to stomach “Oh, total jerks are people, too.” It’s here that McBride’s offerings in the DMCU (The Danny McBride Cinematic Universe) differ, never allowing a glimmer of promise without reminding us just who we’re actually rooting for. This is perhaps most clear in Eastbound, in which, after reconciling with his family in the final season and leaving a job as a sports show host that was quick to profit off his uncouth personality, Kenny Powers writes a screenplay about his life.
But Powers’ bad habits are insatiable, even in autobiographical form. After envisioning himself as a hunky gym coach who’s easily able to win his future wife away from the nerdy Principal (a plot point in Season One that took much longer), he then has that wife killed in a back alley robbery, Batman-style. After battling a drug problem, he rides a hover-bike to Africa, remarries and has copious children. Upon death, he’s burned on a massive pyre, and his ashes eventually whip into the wind and shine in the sky. “The End. Fade to black. Audience goes fucking apeshit,” Powers writes.
It’s representative of his whole life, from viewing his getaway to Mexico as a sort of lone gunslinger’s journey, to seeing his troubled spot on a Myrtle Beach baseball team as a cause for ceaseless, unearned celebrity. Powers never really wins. Even the domestic bliss he’s granted at the end is simply a preview for whatever dramatic escapades he can dream of. McBride’s Vice Principals character, Neal Gamby, follows similarly, enacting a scheme to overthrow his school’s current principal in a haze of unjustifiable insolence. By the end, Gamby can only share knowing glances with his cohort from across a food court, two pitiful creatures so desperate for even the most minute morsel of power that they’ve shattered entire lives.
The Righteous Gemstones doesn’t seem to be nearing an ending yet (a third season has been confirmed and McBride hopes that it will be a sprawling series,) but his Jesse Gemstone certainly maintains the core attribute of seeing himself as the grand, unappreciated hero of his life, a Southern fried Gilgamesh. His whole family, from little brother Kelvin (played by consistently wonderful Adam Devine) to sister Judy (a role that cements Edi Patterson as one of the best comedic actresses working today), share in his desire for acknowledgement from their congregation and their father despite their jobs as the glorified grifters of a megachurch.
It’s in this thirst for recognition, the world never quite being enough, and the need to lace every good deed with a heaping helping of aggrandizement that defines Danny McBride’s HBO icons. He doesn’t feel the need to ever make them sympathetic, and that prevents them in the end from ever being the heroes that they conceptualize themselves as. As his most famous character once said, “I’m not trying to sound cocky or full of myself, but Kenny Powers has a sneaking suspicion that he will always be great. Because that’s just the way the shit works sometimes.”
Daniel Dockery is Senior Staff Writer for Crunchyroll. You can follow him on Twitter.