For years Joseph Harper has been nurturing an obstinate theory: HBO’s mostly unwatched comedy Eastbound and Down is essentially the same show as Breaking Bad, only a whole lot better.
2013 was a big year on the telly. It saw in the end of one of my favourite shows to ever drag its way onto a television screen. Shot and edited with all the complexity of a motion picture, it signalled the astounding pinnacle of a golden age of television. That show was HBO’s Eastbound and Down.
And while most of you were probably taking in some crappy soap opera about a meth dealer with a goatee, I was reveling in the words and actions of America’s greatest hero.
Over four seasons, Eastbound and Down offered an elaborate parable for the folly of unchecked extrovert masculinity.
Created by Danny McBride and Jody Hill, Eastbound began as a well-written comedy about the rise and fall and rise again of Kenny Powers (McBride), a baseball pitcher blessed with three things: “An arm like a damn rocket, a cock like a burmese python, and the mind of a fucking scientist”. Over its run, it developed a distinctive visual style and tone unlike anything else of television.
Backed by performances by Katy Mixon and Steve Little, and a murderer’s row of supporting talent (Adam Scott, Jillian Bell, Jason Sudeikis, Jerry Minor, Matthew McConaughey, Lily Tomlim, Deep Roy, Tim Heidecker, Will Ferrell, and Craig Robinson) as well as the directing talents of Adam McKay and David Gordon Green; it’s remarkable that the show never found an audience.
The idea that Eastbound and Down is a better show than Breaking Bad isn’t a very popular one. A cursory twitter search revealed that the opinion isn’t particularly widespread; surfacing only in rare instances from the website’s Spanish speaking community:
On the surface the comparison seems laughable – but allow me to deconstruct the elements that make up each show. Both follow a man who squandered his prodigious talent and ended up teaching in a public school, only to set on a path toward what feels are a higher calling.
We then witness him rising through the various ranks of his chosen field, as if moving through levels on a video game, each with its own ‘boss’ (thinking Tuco, Gus, Hank etc in Bad and Kenny’s various baseball leagues). Through that journey the protagonist is accompanied by a sidekick (star turns from Aaron Paul and Steve Little) and a romantic partner who consistently delivers in spite of the bad hand they’re often dealt by the shows writers.
The narrative of each show mirrors the other completely. It’s the tone the shows adopt and the way in which they allow their thematic concerns to play out that differentiates them. Where Breaking Bad occasionally gets bogged down by its own psychological implications, Eastbound lets its male power fantasies run completely wild, unquestioned within the world of the show. This allows it to soar to its dizzying heights of absurdity and transforms Kenny Powers, pure id, into a perpetually spinning cathartic device.
Another major difference is the way each show relates to the torrid worlds they exist in. As seasons progress you can feel the anxiety rising in Walter White and co as Breaking Bad mines down deeper and deeper into the shadowy underworld it occupies. They worry how on earth they’re going to get out of this hole they’re digging.
Kenny Powers, on the other hand, seem to relish his increasingly nightmarish surroundings. As the world around him distorts, Kenny Powers and Eastbound and Down make themselves at home. Breaking Bad’s equivalent gave us half a season of Aaron Paul wallowing in grief and self-pity during the world’s most boring pizza party. Not Kenny Powers’ style. Eastbound and Down absurd and heightened reality allowed for shit like this.
At the crux of both shows are their vaunted anti-heroes, Walter White and Kenny Powers. The kind of protagonists that both Bad and Eastbound serve up were nothing new. Since the dawn of Tony Soprano, these white, middle-aged men have dominated primetime television. Walter seems to descend into these shades of grey, allowing us to fall with him. What makes Kenny special is the way he seems to have always been in the black.
He is, after all, the “negro hombre” and never tried to convince us he was anything other than that. Depraved in every facet of his being and always one step forward, two steps back into villainy, any moral redemption Kenny attained was purely accidental. Kenny Powers was the baddest man in the bad man era. And that Danny McBride and Jody Hill somehow tricked us into rooting for this moronic, bigoted megalomanic is a goddamn miracle.
At the end of 2013 Eastbound and Down went with a whimper, and that’s a tragedy, cos it was fuckin’ great. The point of this isn’t necessarily to put down Breaking Bad. It’s to offer up a eulogy to another great show that drowned in its massive wake.
Its detractors could probably quote Spinal Tap and describe Eastbound as “treading water in a sea of retarded sexuality”, but to do so is to sell it short. Eastbound never trod water. It glided over it all on a purple waverunner.
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