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TV Weekend: HBO Bunts, FOTC Homers

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McBride and Hawkes. / HBO

McBride and Hawkes. / HBO

Is it damning with faint praise to say that HBO’s new comedy, Eastbound & Down, is a funny show if you don’t expect too much?

What I mean by that is this: whereas some HBO comedies are wry and dry (Flight of the Conchords), cosmopolitan (Sex and the City) or knowingly insidery (Entourage), Eastbound (Sunday, 10:30 p.m. E.T.) is exactly what it sounds like, namely, a weekly half-hour version of a Will Ferrell jock comedy (e.g., Talladega Nights). Danny McBride (Tropic Thunder, Pineapple Express) plays Kenny Powers, a boorish former league pitcher who washed out of the majors after problems with his mouth (a string of bigoted interviews a la John Rocker) and his nose (i.e., snort!). Now he’s living with his brother (Deadwood’s John Hawkes) and working a gym-teacher job at his old middle school. And his humbling comedown has taught him… nothing. 

Now I liked Talladega Nights, so there’s nothing wrong with this. (Ferrell is a co-executive producer, so the resemblence is neither larcenous nor accidental.) McBride plays Powers with obnoxious mullethead self-confidence (seriously, if a mullet haircut could talk, it would sound like him). And freed of the need to redeem himself at the end of a 90-minute comedy, he’s free to be coarser and more blind to himself than even a Ferrell character. The flip side of that is that if Powers doesn’t develop at all, he could become a tired joke fast. That I can’t judge; HBO send one episode. But I’ll gladly watch the second. 

In the larger sense, this is another move that makes me wonder where HBO is going creatively in the future. As opposed to past series, Eastbound isn’t especially ambitious or trying to reinvent a genre. Instead it’s saying, Let’s take something that works in the movies (the raunchy, clueless-star comedy), which you could only re-create on pay cable, hire some movie people and re-create it. Not to put too fine a point on it, it could be one way of responding to criticisms that you got too fancy-pantsed with dark, cerebral shows like In Treatment. 

There are, after all, a couple ways of justifying a pay-cable channel with series. One is to make shows that reinvent their subjects or are unlike anything you’ve seen on TV. The other is to take something people pay to see in another format (i.e., Will Ferrell movies) and make them for TV. Now, I pay to see Will Ferrell movies, but I hope HBO isn’t investing too much in the latter over the former. I’m fine if HBO bunts with a show like Eastbound every now and then, but we need it to keep swinging for the fences too. 

Meanwhile, I just saw this Sunday’s Flight of the Conchords, and it kills. It also happens to be the episode they were taping when I was on set. It was directed by Michel Gondry, who, before making films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, was an acclaimed video director, and it includes one song segment that visually rivals Foux da Fa Fa as FOTC’s best music video.